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Sequential Incisions on a Cave Bear Bone from the Middle Paleolithic of Pešturina Cave, Serbia

Abstract

We present the detailed analysis of a cervical vertebra from a cave bear, found at Pešturina cave, Serbia, in a Mousterian archaeological level dated by radiocarbon at 43.5–44.6 kyr cal BP, and by ESR to between 93.5 and 102.5 kyr BP. Identified as a portion of the cranial articular facet, the fragment displays ten subparallel grooves. The microscopic study of these grooves and other surface modification present on the bone fragment, conducted with multifocus optical and confocal microscopes and complemented by a taphonomic analysis of the associated faunal assemblage, supports the hypothesis that the incisions were made by humans. Results are used to critically examine ambiguities implicit in the analysis and interpretation of early engravings, a category of material culture that has been playing a key role in the identification of early instances of symbolically mediated behavior.

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Notes

  1. It was labeled as in situ 9 find, with the XYZ coordinates x1 = 30, x2 = 36, y1 = 88, y2 = 80, and z = 303.01.

  2. The object is kept at the Department of Archaeology of the University of Belgrade. It was made available for analyses at the UMR 5199 PACEA laboratory of the University of Bordeaux, France by a temporary export permit issued by The National Institute for the Protection of Cultural Monuments of Serbia.

  3. Reference collections include those held at the PACEA Laboratory, Bordeaux University, and the Laboratory for Bioarchaeology, University of Belgrade, the data available through the virtual, online interactive osteological reference collection for the study of northern vertebrates (The Virtual Zooarchaeology of the Arctic Project-VZAP) (Betts et al. 2011; Maschner et al. 2011; http://vzap.iri.isu.edu/ViewPage.aspx?id=230), and the 3D comparative animal skeletons produced by Department of Human Evolution at Max Planck Institute, Germany (Niven et al. 2009).

  4. Microscopic images of the relevant features were obtained with a Leica DFC420 digital camera and a Leica Application Suite (LAS) equipped with the multifocus module. The equipment is designed to produce extended depth of field images and 3D reconstructions of areas of interest. Both microscopic and digital images were edited in the Adobe® Photoshop® CS5.1 Extended software. Tracing of the bone and the observed modifications was executed in the Adobe® Illustrator® CS5.1 software.

  5. The deer family shows the greatest diversity of species. Other well-represented large ungulates are the bison (Bison priscus) and the ibex (Capra ibex).

  6. Six percent among specimens identified to the species.

  7. Twenty-seven percent among specimens identified to the species.

  8. Bear skinning in not unparalleled in course of the Late Middle Paleolithic, although it is mostly confined to brown bear. The closest spatial and temporal example of extensive bear skinning comes from late last interglacial contexts of Krapina rockshelter, where 32% of NISP attributed to brown bear display skinning marks on limb extremities and skulls (Miracle 2007, 252).

  9. In the same and adjacent contexts (square O10, excavation layer 22), two horse femur fragments were found, probably from the same element, with one of them bearing both filleting and tooth marks, and a fragment of a horse radius with percussion marks; two carpals and a metacarpal of deer; a wolf’s and a hyena’s teeth. In addition, there were 376 mammalian bone and teeth fragments, including 11 burnt, 7 gnawed, and 29 water dissolved specimens.

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Acknowledgements

We express our gratitude to Milica Lopičić-Mitrović, Department of Archaeology of the University of Belgrade for her help in obtaining the export permits for the archaeological material. Our thanks also go to Lucinda Backwell, Dominique Armand, Patrick Auguste, Aleta Guadelli, Jean-Luc Guadelli, and Myriam Boudadi-Maligne for insightful discussions and helpful advices. We are grateful to Marylène Patou-Mathis, Département de Préhistoire du Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris, Stèphane Madelaine, Musée National de Préhistoire, Les Eyzies-de-Tayac, Teodora Radišić, Laboratory for Bioarchaeology, Museum of Vojvodina, Novi Sad, and Jan Wagner, Department of Paleontology, National Museum, Prague for giving access to axes kept in their institutions or providing us with the relevant measurements. The authors thank the National Institute for the Protection of Cultural Monuments of Serbia for the temporary export of the object (under the export permit No. 0034) for research purposes at the UMR 5199 PACEA laboratory of the University of Bordeaux. Thanks are also due to the reviewers for their useful comments and suggestions. Financial support to AM came from the Wenner-Gren Foundation. This research was also funded by the European Research Council Advanced Grant, TRACSYMBOLS No. 249587 awarded under the FP7 program. Excavations and analyses of Pešturina are supported by grants from the Ministry of Culture and Information and the Ministry of Education and Science of the Republic of Serbia, project no. 177023, and project no. III 47001.

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Majkić, A., d’Errico, F., Milošević, S. et al. Sequential Incisions on a Cave Bear Bone from the Middle Paleolithic of Pešturina Cave, Serbia. J Archaeol Method Theory 25, 69–116 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10816-017-9331-5

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Keywords

  • Engravings
  • Neanderthals
  • Mousterian
  • Taphonomy
  • Early graphic expressions
  • Symbolism