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The usefulness of ;a mysterious fragment of staked bone revealed by experimental archaeology

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Different shots of the leather cutting board made from a fragment of large mammal bone. Scale bar: 1 cm.

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It's the story of a piece of bone found in 2007 by archaeologists from the University of Barcelona on the archaeological site of Gavà, in northeastern Spain.

The fragment of around ten centimeters could be considered banal, since it is similar to many others commonly discovered in Europe.

But this one -this is particular: it has marks on its surface which make it very interesting to archaeologists. We can observe 10 well-aligned punctuations there, explains Luc Doyon, an archaeologist at the University of Bordeaux, in France, whose work is published in the journal Science(New window) (in English).

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The piece belongs to a flat bone, possibly the mandible, the scapula (scapula) or the pelvis of a fairly large animal like the horse or the auroch, the ancestor of our domestic cows. It dates back 39,600 years. A contextual dating, since the bone was not cut in order to preserve its entirety. It was pieces of coal discovered in the same layer of sediment that revealed its age.

The question was why humans had perforated the fragment. What could it be used for? Luc Doyon and his colleagues put forward the idea that it could be a tool for piercing skins to make clothing, but they still had to prove it.

At the time, humans (Homo sapiens) who populated the region – and Europe – were Aurignacians, a nomadic Upper Paleolithic society known for their use of a series of bone tools to work flint, make jewelry, objects of x27;art and other instruments.

It is also the first culture to leave lasting traces of figurative art, such as statuettes in mammoth ivory.

Moreover, punctuations created on a bone by the Aurignacians could simply be decorative or symbolic.

Hypotheses that Luc Doyon and his colleagues did not accept.

When they [punctuations] are decorative, they usually appear on sculpted figurines. The small dots are an allegory of the fur of an animal or the clothing of an anthropomorphic figure, notes Mr. Doyon.

The decorative aspect was quickly abandoned because the piece of bone was not shaped. It's just a broken piece. But the symbolic aspect was more difficult to dismiss, adds Mr. Doyon.

We have 10 aligned punctuations, but under the microscope, we spotted 18 others barely visible and sometimes even one on top of the other.

A quote from Luc Doyon, University of Bordeaux

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At the top, the dots are barely noticeable and messy, and at the bottom, the series of ten well aligned points. (the white line measures one centimeter)

The archaeologist therefore does not think that it is a symbolic interpretation either, which usually presents visible regularities.

If it were a symbolic object, we would want to easily convey an idea, information, simply by looking at it. The fact that certain information is not visible therefore does not fit with this idea.

A quote from Luc Doyon, University of Bordeaux

The pickled fragment is therefore not an artistic work. This is why Luc Doyon and his colleagues put forward the idea that it could be a tool for piercing skins in order to make clothes.

To show that it was indeed in the presence of a leather cutting board, the researchers used experimental archaeology.

It's an approach by which we try to reproduce the gestures that made prehistoric [humans] with replicas of their tools that they might have had at their disposal.

A quote from Luc Doyon, archaeologist at the University of Bordeaux

The European team thus created a series of experiments that allowed them to compare experimental material with archaeological material to determine which techniques and tools (chisels or flint points) were used to create the device.

We realized that the tips were exploding and that the chisels, elongated tools much more robust, were much more efficient.

A quote from Luc Doyon, archaeologist at the University of Bordeaux

They then experimented with some techniques to imagine how the half-millimeter holes were created.

With a rib of beef that you place on a leg, you can achieve this quite easily, by putting the chisel on top and using a sort of hammer, to make very similar marks.

A quote from Luc Doyon, archaeologist at the University of Bordeaux

The researchers then wanted to know what types of activities made it possible to produce these kinds of marks on the bone.

They then realized that by drilling thick leather, we produced exactly the same rounded morphology. It is almost identical, even identical to what we find on the archaeological object, continues Mr. Doyon.

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Eyed needles unearthed at Xiaogushan (A) and Zhoukoudian (B) in China.

What happened between the arrival of the first Homo sapiens in Europe and 26,000 years ago, knowing that it was not very warm at that time? time on the continent? asks Mr. Doyon.

Our study shows that the technique [of the leather cutting board] was used by the firstHomo European sapiens, he notes.

Luc Doyon adds that the nearly 40,000 year old method is still used today by shoemakers and by some traditional companies

The first tools of stone appeared 3 million years ago and those made of bone 2.4 million years ago.

The invention of a stitching technique that makes it possible to easily and quickly produce a large number of identical perforations could have facilitated the appearance of tailor-made clothing, believe Luc Doyon and his colleagues.

In addition, the researchers note that the regularity observed in the production of the marks suggests that the craftsman perfectly mastered the technique.

This suggests that Aurignacian hunter-gatherers possessed and used technology to produce close-fitting clothing, even though their technical system did not involve the production of bone-eye needles, conclude the researchers.

Adjusted clothing which certainly allowed these first Europeans to adapt to the climatic variability which characterized the Upper Paleolithic from the continent. A temperature that could recall that of Quebec in winter, notes Mr. Doyon, who obtained his bachelor's and master's degrees at the University of Montreal.

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