Prehistoric Northern Russians Were Obsessed With Elks, Grave Goods Show

Burials from 8,200 years ago on a wee island far up in the north contain all kinds of gear for the afterlife – half of which is elk teeth engraved to be worn as pendants

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Rendering of the body of a woman, whose remains were found in a cemetery on the island of Yuzhniy Oleniy Ostrov, in northwest Russia
Artist's rendering of the body of a woman, whose remains were found in a cemetery on the island of Yuzhniy Oleniy Ostrov in northern Russia, with elk teeth adorning her hips and thighs.Credit: Tom Björklund

Humans have adorned themselves since time immemorial, helping themselves to the feathers, bones, pelts and teeth of the animals they hunted and/or admired and/or both. Now archaeologists report on a mad sartorial fad for elk teeth on a tiny island in northwest Russia over 8,000 years ago. For all the island’s tiny size a lot of people were buried there with grave goods – half of which were elk teeth.

Presumably it was less the giant deer’s dentition and more the animal itself that won adulation, but the spirit is fleeting and the teeth aren’t.

Specifically, more than 4,300 elk incisors, apparently worn as pendants or attached to clothing (of which nothing remains any more), had been found in 84 burials at the Late Mesolithic cemetery of Yuzhniy Oleniy Ostrov, in northwestern Russia not too far from Finland. The island manufacturers of the elk-tooth pendants don’t seem to have indulged in artistic license, based on analysis of the teeth, which were unearthed over time and are stored mostly in the Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography in St. Petersburg.

“A striking observation is that the manufacture of these pendants is similar in all burials,” write Kristiina Mannermaa of the University of Helsinki and colleagues in Nature Human Behavior.

Further evidence that the elk was accorded special admiration is its abundant depiction in petroglyphs throughout the region, over thousands of years. An enormous one, reminiscent of the Peruvian Nasca lines, was detected in Siberia by Google Earth, according to LiveScience. Its dating is not known. Frankly it could be a deer but at 900 feet in length, it may have the benefit of doubt.

Petroglyphs found in the Kosh Agach district of Russia's Altai Republic.Credit: Alexandr Frolov, Wikimedia Commons

Russia Beyond reported in November that elk-oriented rock carvings found at Nanai, at the other end of the country, date back 12,000 years.

Groovy fashion

The island of Yuzhniy Oleniy Ostrov is a wee one now and was in the late Mesolithic as well. The archaeologists estimate that 8,200 years ago, the rough date of the cemetery, the island was 700 meters wide by 2.5 kilometers long. It had two small hilltops and the burial ground, with 177 graves of men, women (87 percent, together) and children (13 percent), was on the north-facing slope of the highest hill.

It bears adding that modern industry has destroyed part of the cemetery so it was evidently bigger back then, but we don’t know how much bigger.

The island cemetery featured inhumations, burial in the ground, which is typical of the late Stone Age graves in Scandinavia, the Baltic and northwest Russia. Generally the dead or at least the better-off among them were interred with grave goods. The quality of the goods are generally taken as indicative of status: The more goods and the finer or rarer they are, the wealthier or more powerful or both one had been.

For one example closer to home, a petite, elderly and disabled woman was buried 12,000 years ago in what is Israel today with a veritable army of animals (50 tortoises, bits of a boar, and an eagle, a cow, a leopard and two martens, as well as a human foot), and is speculated to have been a shaman.

On Yuzhniy Oleniy Ostrov the bodies were sprinkled with red ocher; the grave goods included tools made of bone and stone, arrowheads, points and harpoons, and chiefly – teeth, grooved and perforated so they could be hung using a cord.

An elk at rest, in nature. The hunter-gatherers of the region in today's Russia in which the Finnish archaeologists were working likely venerated the animal.Credit: Ryan Hagerty

The people did not quail at wearing the dentition of beaver and reindeer, and of course of wolf, dog or boar, but those were rarer. The archaeologists also found both humanoid and animal-shaped figurines.

But the major find, comprising half the total grave goods, were elk teeth.

Dental necklaces are forever

No clothing has survived the millennia underground but the archaeologists think the teeth weren’t just worn around the neck, but hung from their garb, and maybe from their belts and headdresses too, based on the location of the teeth in the grave. Microwear analysis indicates the pendants were used constantly, a finding also made regarding dentally derived pendants in Lithuania. Meaning, they weren’t fashioned just for the funeral.

Dentally derived trinkets found in late Stone Age sites elsewhere in the region tended to have perforations for hanging the things, rather than grooves that would facilitate tying.

On the island, those teeth that were engraved, were worked much the same way: One to a few grooves were engraved around the tip of the root, the researchers write. Few were perforated.

“The uniformity of the chosen species, tooth and techniques indicates that strict norms prevailed in the pendant industry,” they write – though in their own caveat, they note a range of groove depth and so on.

The uniformity could theoretically stem from ritualism in manufacture, or even from optimality – i.e., that way was really best. Differences in the punctiliousness of the engravings, from meticulously done to slapdash, could stem from personality traits, or training – young’uns being taught the art would make terrible elk teeth pendants at first. It’s hard to nail down motivations over 8,000 years in the past.

Petroglyphs on the Jalgiztobe hill, Kosh Agach district, Altai Republic, RussiaCredit: Altaihunters, Wikimedia Commons

All that said, the archaeologists note that in many graves, a particular nature of tooth grooving dominated, which could attest to personal tastes, or even constitute a family identification marker – my family has two grooves and yours has three. The archaeologists note that latter-day locals maintain family clusters in graves and take trespassing by other dead people very seriously – “If someone, for example, accidentally buried a relative in their neighbor’s area, or even visited it, it was an accepted practice to punish that person even by killing them,” they write, quoting a study from 2015. But meticulous checking did not find evidence of “family-based” grooving patterns.

Before death, meanwhile, one would assume the grooves were engraved on the teeth for the cord by which the pendants or ornaments hung – especially in the absence of common perforation. There is no proof, however, of that hypothesis: They couldn’t connect groove type with particular ornaments, garments or hanging positions, the authors write.

However, they could use the elk teeth to demarcate clusters of the long-deceased islanders, not that they could reach categorical conclusions. Clearly the people on this spot preferred grooving to perforating – which is a lot harder to do without shattering the tooth. Maybe different families had different grooving practices, where some manufacturing license, if not artistic, was allowed. Or maybe family association had nothing to do with it and the nature of the engraving was driven by practicality.

Admire, kill, roast

Possibly shoring up this suggestion: The grooves were not always made on the broadest, most convenient facet of the elk tooth, which would be the easiest way. “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 says.

Why would so many teeth have come from elk and not the more impressive bear or wolf, or even dogs? They were a thing then – dogs had definitely been domesticated in the region, though their degree of adoption is not known.

The reason is probably that the hunter-gatherers of the region may have venerated the animal – “Elk was the most important animal in the ideology and beliefs of the prehistorical hunter-gatherers of the Eurasian forest zone, and their limited availability made elk teeth a valuable material to ancient hunters,” the archaeologists say. Also there’s a rarity element: These animals don’t actually have many teeth: eight incisors, six permanent ones in the lower jaw and two permanent canines in the shape of incisors, say the authors.

A final note. The graves with the most elk teeth weren’t those of the hoary sages of the community or the kiddies. The elk teeth were most abundant in the burials of young adult females and adult and mature males, who were apparently of breeding age. There were burials with no teeth, and burials with no teeth but other grave goods, which was mainly how the children and the aged went into the next life.

Also, the odd bear-fang pendant did not evince similarly compulsive grooving: Some were grooved, some perforated, some nothing. Which leads to the speculation that the elks or at least their teeth had special significance, possibly relating to virility, a supposition that could find support in the elk-based prehistoric art in the region. Which never stopped us from eating them, it seems, whether roasted on the hearth after being brained with a club or speared, or with leek gravy and a nice chianti on the side.

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