Southern African hunters may have used symbolism in choosing bones to craft arrows

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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.

In several other parts of the world, such as Canada and Russia, people used the bones of animals that were important within their respective cultures to make tools. Nothing like this has been documented in southern Africa and we wanted to find out whether this was because this practice was not followed in the region or whether it was simply undocumented.

To find out, we used a method known as ZooMS. This analyses the collagen proteins found in animal bones. Collagen proteins are unique to different groups of animals. So, we could “fingerprint” samples from modern animals and then recognise them in archaeological samples of unknown origin.

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The study found that there was selective targeting of animals for tool manufacture at some sites, with a narrowing of the range of selected species after about AD 1,000. Certain groups of antelopes appear to have been deliberately avoided. This suggests bones weren’t used just because they happened to be available. We hypothesise that distinctive animal behaviours, such as that of the rhebok, were appropriated by people to serve as metaphors through which to understand human society. And we believe this symbolism was expressed through people’s tools as a means of harnessing the “power” of the animal.

Animal symbolism
The Bushmen (or San) believed that animals such as the eland, rhebok and hartebeest possessed supernatural powers. These could be harnessed by shamans during certain ceremonies to bring about rain or influence the movement of game. In some cases, items of clothing made from these animals would be worn during healing and rain-making ceremonies.

Animals were also frequently depicted in San rock art. A clear emphasis was placed on those species believed to be particularly powerful, such as eland, rhebok and roan.

Among the Nguni, spirits of the ancestors were commonly ascribed the behavioural traits of certain wild animals, among them elephants, rhinoceros, lions and baboons.

Forty-three species are known to have been divinatory animals among the Nguni: some of these species’ bones regularly formed part of diviners’ kits because they were believed to confer those animals’ “powers” to the diviners.

The archaeology of KwaZulu-Natal
The Tugela River catchment area was first occupied by hunter-gatherers from about 7,000 years ago. Once farming communities began settling the area in the fifth century AD, hunter-gatherers started moving out of the mountainous areas to live nearer the farmer settlements. There, they benefited from trade in pottery and agricultural produce in exchange for wild animal skins and services rendered.

When farmers and hunter-gatherers came into contact, they adopted parts of each other’s material culture as well certain words and concepts linked to divinatory animals. The Nguni regarded the Bushmen as spiritual mediators, able to intercede with the supernatural world to bring about rain and other boons.

Even the caves the Bushmen occupied were seen by the Nguni as places of power. On the other hand, the new domestic animals introduced by the Nguni farmers were quickly assimilated into hunter-gatherer cosmology. They replaced eland and other antelopes as a favoured rock art motif.