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23 January 2021
Teeth pendants speak of the elk's prominent status in prehistory

Roughly 8,200 years ago, the island of Yuzhniy Oleniy Ostrov in Lake Onega in the Republic of Karelia, Russia, housed a large burial ground where people of varying ages were buried. Many of the graves contain an abundance of pendants made of elk incisors that were apparently attached to clothing and accessories, such as dresses, coats, cloaks, headdresses and belts. Although no clothing material has been preserved, the location of the elk teeth sheds light on the possible type of these outfits.
     A study headed by archaeologist Kristiina Mannermaa, University of Helsinki, aimed to determine who the people buried in outfits decorated with elk tooth ornaments were, and what the pendants meant to them. The study analyzed the manufacturing technique of a total of more than 4,000 tooth ornaments, or the way in which the teeth had been processed for attachment or suspension. The results were surprising, as practically all of the teeth had been processed identically by making one or more small grooves at the tip of the root, which made tying the pendants easier.
     "Even though there are pendants made of beaver and bear teeth in the graves, the share of elk teeth in them is overwhelming," Mannermaa says. Typically, only one or at the most a couple of different groove types were prevalent in individual graves. This indicates that the pendants found in a specific grave or cluster were the result of routine serial production of sorts carried out in a fairly short period of time.
     "Interestingly, the grooves were not always made on the broadest side of the tooth, which would be the easiest option. In many graves, the grooves are on the thin side of the tooth where the unstable position of the tooth makes them harder to do. The artisan may have resorted to this method in order to tie them in a specific position," researcher Riitta Rainio notes. The tooth pendants found in graves located in the Baltic area and Scandinavia from the same period as the Yuzhniy Oleniy Ostrov graves are almost exclusively perforated.
     To many indigenous peoples in Eurasia, decorations have been and still are an important way of describing a person's identity and origin. They are connected to intercommunity communication and the strengthening of intracommunity uniformity. And elk was the most important animal in the ideology and beliefs of the prehistorical hunter-gatherers of the Eurasian forest zone, so their limited availability made elk teeth a valuable material to ancient hunters.
     The largest ornaments required the teeth of at least 8 to 18 elks. The highest number of elk teeth were found in the graves of young adult women and men, the lowest in those of children and elderly people. In other words, elk tooth ornaments were in one way or another linked to age, possibly specifically to the peak reproductive years.

Edited from PhysORG (14 January 2021)

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