Aija Macane

Aija Macāne: Stone Age Companions: Humans and animals in hunter- gatherer burials in north-eastern Europe

Culture and languages

Respondent: Aija Macāne, Department of historical studies.

7 Jun 2022
13:00 - 16:00
Sal J222, Humanisten, Renströmsgatan 6

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Passcode: 593005
Department of Historical Studies

Dissertation. Stone Age Companions: Humans and animals in hunter- gatherer burials in north-eastern Europe

Examining committee:

Professor Vesa-Pekka Herva, Oulu universitet
Professor Ingrid Fuglestvedt, Universitetet i Oslo
Senior researcher Ivana Živaljević, University of Novi Sad

Substitute: Professor Kjel Knutsson, Uppsala universitet

Opponent: Professor Peter Jordan, Lunds universitet
Chairman: Docent Karl-Göran Sjögren, Göteborgs universitet

Link to gupea: 


Animal remains, both unworked and modified, are frequently found alongside human bodies in hunter-gatherer burials in north-eastern Europe. This thesis examines the relationships between humans and animals in their mutual environment and how these relationships were expressed and given material form in the burial practices of northern foragers. The empirical research material consists of animal remains, particularly animal tooth pendants, deposited in graves at five major hunter-gatherer burial sites: Zvejnieki (Latvia), Skateholm I and II (Sweden) and Sakhtysh II and IIa (Russia). The Zvejnieki cemetery (dated to the 8th–3rd millennium cal BC) represents the largest assemblage of animal remains and has a central place in this study. The material from Skateholm (ca. 5600–4800 cal BC) and Sakhtysh (5th – early 3rd millennium cal BC) provides additional examples of human–animal interactions during more narrowly delimited time periods and in different geographical areas. The interdisciplinary toolkit used in this work includes re-evaluation of previous zoo-osteological analyses, supplementing them with new ones, an extensive archival and literature survey of documentation relevant to the studied sites, and spatial and contextual analyses both of the studied cemeteries and of each excavated burial. In addition, radiocarbon, bulk stable isotope and ZooMS analyses of animal remains were performed, with varying results. The interpretative framework builds on the relational approach and hunter-gatherer ontologies, and the relationship between humans and animals during the Stone Age is approached through the perspective of companionship. In this thesis, animals are considered not only as a source of food and raw materials, but as companion species that inhabited a shared landscape with humans.

The thesis is divided into 11 Chapters. Chapters 1–3 introduce the methodology and interpretive framework. Chapter 4 provides an overview of the studied sites and the studies previously carried out. In Chapters 5–10 each of the main animal groups (carnivores, ungulates, rodents, birds, fish and reptiles, and humans) is described and discussed in detail.

Chapter 11 presents the discussion and conclusions regarding the multi-layered human–animal relationships.

The studied material, covering a period of five millennia, shows the changing relationship between humans and animal species in north-eastern Europe. Ungulates, notably elk, wild boar and red deer, were the most widespread animals in burials, especially during the 8th–6th millennium cal BC. An increase in the diversity of species in burials, particularly of carnivores, can be seen starting from the 5th millennium cal BC. The shift from ungulates to carnivores and from animal tooth pendants to more strongly modified artefact forms made from other animal remains (bone and antler) is evident in the studied burial assemblages. Also, the common companion species from the surrounding environment are gradually replaced by imported materials and objects, also including non-local animal species (such as seals and marmot). The relationships with animal species at each site were shaped by multiple factors, including environmental and ecological conditions (availability of particular species) and the socio-cultural context (preferences and restrictions arising from traditions and cosmological concepts). Certain species, such as elk, wild boar and bear, are present at all of the sites, while other species, such as red deer, badger and seal, appear to have been more favoured at a particular site or time. Ungulate incisors and carnivore canines are most commonly used for making pendants, but local preferences for the use of other bones, such as beaver astragali, modified and unmodified bird wing bones, and red deer antlers, can also be observed. The study shows that fragmentation and selection of specific body parts was important, and sometimes even attention was paid to maintaining the integrity of particular animal individuals. Animal individuality and personality were essential to establishing relationships between them and humans.

Animal-derived materials had a central role in mediating social communication and cosmological beliefs. Their materiality and embedded origin were employed to cross borders and move between different spheres of the world. Some animals or their body parts might have been important companions for self-identification and expression of affiliation to a group or family, while others would have embodied protective or apotropaic qualities. Some parts of animals may have been used for shamanistic (in a broad sense) purposes through transformation and shapeshifting. The varied placement of animal remains in the burials further demonstrates the diversity of these relationships and the multiple uses of animal remains. They were not just ornaments of the body or wrappings, but could also adorn other items or be part of depositions and structures in the burial arrangements.

Reading all of this from a companionship perspective shows that human–animal relationships were absolutely fundamental for the Stone Age hunter-gatherers, while at the same time not necessarily being governed by rigid rules, but rather fluid and situational. Companionship in Stone Age north-eastern Europe was forged at an individual level, where both humans and animals participated. The active engagement of humans and various non-humans, as well as the personalities of these agents, were essential in creating the interspecies relationships and environments that made up the hunter-gatherer milieu. Therefore, this study offers a novel perspective for approaching animal remains in north-eastern Europe and beyond. It makes an important contribution to expanding our understanding of the relationships between Stone Age humans and animals and how manifold and ontologically fundamental they really were. Despite the spatial, temporal and cultural variation, animal companions were never far away from the Stone Age hunter-gatherers.

Keywords: human–animal relationships, relational ontologies, companionship perspective, burial archaeology, mortuary practices, zooarchaeology, hunter-gatherers, Stone Age, Mesolithic, Neolithic, north-eastern Europe, southern Sweden, Latvia, central European Russia