Identifying the animal species used to manufacture bone arrowheads in South Africa

  • Justin Bradfield
  • Tim Forssman
  • Luke Spindler
  • Annie R. Antonites
Original Paper


The identification to species of completely worked bone tools is impossible using standard skeletal morphological markers. Worked bone studies therefore have focused on questions about manufacture and use, rather than on issues of raw material selection strategies. Zooarchaeology by Mass Spectrometry (ZooMS) is a technique that uses unique collagen biomarkers to fingerprint and identify species of origin from small amounts of bone or ivory. We present the first ZooMS analysis of bone arrowheads from southern Africa. Our findings show that a narrower selection of species was selected for tool manufacture than for food, while, at some sites, certain antelope species were selected for tools that are not present in the unmodified faunal remains. We examine what this selectivity might suggest about mechanical suitability and symbolic associations of the species chosen to make tools. We conclude that mechanical suitability was probably of primary concern and that probable symbolic connotations that were attached to certain species did not translate to the technological sphere to the same extent that they did in other parts of the world.


ZooMS analysis Species identification Worked bone Zooarchaeology Southern Africa 



Steve Ashby is thanked for his presentation that brought the ZooMS method to the attention of the first author. The material for analysis was exported under SAHRA permit ID 2338 and we thank the authorities for granting us permission to sample these artefacts. In addition, we thank the various museums for granting permission to sample their collections, specifically Sian Tilly-Nel from the University of Pretoria Museums for access to the Mapungubwe collection; Johnny van Schalkwyk and Frank Teichert, Ditsong National Museum of Cultural History; and Thembiwe Russell, University of the Witwatersrand, and Maria van der Ryst, University of South Africa. Ashley Coutu is thanked for her assistance and advice at different stages of this research. James Brink, Floresbad Quarternary Research Centre, provided some of the comparative bone specimens. Ebrahim Patel and Sindisiwe Shangase are thanked for permission to use facilities at the Wits School of Dentistry and for their assistance in this regard. JB acknowledges the financial support of the Oppenheimer Memorial Trust.

Supplementary material

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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Centre for Anthropological Research, Department of Anthropology and Development StudiesUniversity of JohannesburgJohannesburgSouth Africa
  2. 2.Evolutionary Studies Institute, University of the Witwatersrand and School of Geography, Archaeology and Environmental StudiesUniversity of the WitwatersrandJohannesburgSouth Africa
  3. 3.Rock Art Research Institute, School of Geography, Archaeology and Environmental StudiesUniversity of the WitwatersrandJohannesburgSouth Africa
  4. 4.BioArCh, Department of ArchaeologyUniversity of YorkNorth YorkshireUK
  5. 5.The Heritage Foundation, Pretoria, South Africa and Department of Anthropology and ArchaeologyUniversity of South AfricaPretoriaSouth Africa

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