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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.

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