Interpreting Paleolithic Funerary Rites from Broken Ochred Pebbles

Claudine Gravel-Miguel, archaeology doctoral student at the School of Human Evolution and Social Change, Arizona State University, research has taken her to the Caverna delle Arene Candide in Italy. In the 1940’s this cave was discovered. 20 individuals were buried there. The site is about 11,000 – 13,000 years old. For decades, as excavations progressed, archaeologists found and ignored many small oblong shaped stones. The stones were out of place. Why would smooth round river stones and pebbles be in a cave?

Refitted stone fragments with different patinas suggest a meaning behind the breaking of the stone. Photo courtesy of Claudine Gravel-Miguel
Refitted stone fragments with different patinas suggest a meaning behind the breaking of the stone. Photo courtesy of Claudine Gravel-Miguel

Gravel-Miguel and her team honed on this otherwise neglected finding. They quickly deduced that these hunter-gatherers specifically chose these stones from nearby beaches. They published this finding here. Looking in detail, with microscopes, also the stones held traces of ochre. Ochre we know is pigment frequently used by prehistoric people to paint the bodies of the deceased. So why were the majority of these stone found broken in a cave some distance away?

Gravel-Miguel proposes that people smashed them intentionally after use.  What was the significance of the breaks, was it intentional or accidental? If intentional, where the breaks part of a ritual act that symbolically killed the stones’ power over the dead? Such practice has been documented in the Neolithic, but never before in the Paleolithic, making this case the oldest example ever recorded.

Additionally, they found that except for two refitting parts, each broken stone the team excavated had pieces missing from its fragments. In her paper, Gravel-Miguel uses this data to support a hypothesis that one piece of each stone was left at the cave, while another was taken by a loved one as a way to remember and connect with the dead.

Gravel-Miguel has also been left curious about whether the ritually broken stones were deposited as grave goods — that is, intentionally placed in the burial — or if they were just tossed away after the ritual. To find out, she will need to go back to the artifact collection of the archaeologist who excavated the site in the 1940s. One of the next steps is to also research other archaeological sites from the same time period to help find out if the practice of stone-smashing and fragment-keeping is something that was done locally by one group, or something that was part of a broader culture shared throughout the region.

3 thoughts on “Interpreting Paleolithic Funerary Rites from Broken Ochred Pebbles

  1. I am always in awe of how professional Scientist can disregard something out of place! I watched a show about a chance discovery in Colorado where a commercial dig turned into a big archeological site. What was once a small lake was filled with many layers of megafauna bones and evidence of rock slides. All of that was really neat to watch but the most amazing thing of all was at an upper layer dating to around 40,000 yrs old. A mammoth’s remains was found with rocks placed about it to weigh it down. It is obviously an early man’s cool storage site but the ivory tower types refuse to believe what is before their eyes!

    Anyhow, after so much time of famine with no emails from this site we suddenly get a feast!

    I hope you are well n everything is all right in your life, miss you greatly! Live long n prosper

    Sent from my iPad


  2. The red ochre was a blood symbol and keeping the stones may have been a way of acknowledging blood kinship.

    The earliest known use of red ochre powder (300,000 years) is at the site GnJh-03 in the Kapthurin Formation of East Africa, and at Twin Rivers in Zambia.

    The use of red ochre in burial was widespread in prehistoric times. A man buried 45,000 years ago at La Chapelle-aux-Saints in southern France, was packed in red ochre. “The Red Lady of Paviland” in Wales was buried in red ochre about 20,000 years ago. Her skeletal remains and burial artifacts are encrusted with the red ore.

    Australian burial sites dating to about 20,000 years reveal pink staining of the soil around the skeleton, indicating that red ochre had been sprinkled over the body.The remains of an adult male found at Lake Mungo in southeastern Australia were copiously sprinkled with red ochre.

    The ‘Fox Lady’ of Doini Vestonice, Czechoslovakia (near Russia) who was burial 23,000 years ago, was also covered in red ochre.

    A 20,000 year old burial site in Bavaria reveals a thirty-year-old man entirely surrounded by a pile of mammoth tusks and nearly submerged in a mass of red ochre.

    In the La Braña-Arintero cave in the Cantabrian Mountains of Spain, 7000 year old skeletons were discovered in 2006. The bodies were covered with red ochre.

    Two flexed burials were found in Mehrgarh, Pakistan with a covering of red ochre on the bodies. These date from about 5000 BC.

  3. Ochre was adopted by AMHs moving out of the Tropical rainforest to substitute for red wood powder as still used by the Bambuti for ritual body painting.

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