In several other parts of the world, people used the bones of animals that were important within their respective cultures to make tools.
Animals have long played an important symbolic role in human societies. They feature prominently in myths and folklore throughout the world. In some cases animals are used metaphorically: they express clan identity and are used to illustrate concepts of leadership, healing, and protection.
In a newly published study, scholars in South Africa and the United Kingdom – myself among them – have discovered a possible link between the animal bones people used to make tools, like arrowheads and the symbolic importance that people attached to those animals in the past.
The study focused on what is today the Tugela River catchment area of South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province. Here, about 1,200 years ago, immigrant Nguni farmers came into contact with Bushman hunter-gatherers. Ethno-historical records show that animals played an important role in both cultural groups as symbols and metaphors to express ideas. Early interactions between these two groups, as happened in our study area, resulted in the dynamic exchange and assimilation of ideas and symbols.
We wanted to know whether the symbolic importance of certain animals translated into the technological domain at this time and place. That is, whether people were selecting the bones of specific animals and not others to use as raw material for their tools. And, if so, we wanted to know which animals they were selecting.