Prehistoric hunter-gatherers in north-eastern Europe travelled thousands of kilometres to trade and exchange gifts with other communities, a new study suggests.
A team led by Grzegorz Osipowicz, from Poland’s Nicolaus Copernicus University, conducted a DNA analysis on the artefact – known as a “baton perce” – and established that it came from a caribou (Rangifer tarandus). Carbon dating placed the antler in the Early Holocene period – between 11,700 and 8000 years ago.
Records of caribou remains indicate that at that time its range was restricted to northern Scandinavia and north-western Russia. Isotopic analysis of the antler further narrowed its origin to North Karelia or South Lapland in Finland – meaning that it had travelled about 1400 kilometres to end up in Poland.
Osipowicz says it is “impossible to determine conclusively” how or why the baton covered the distance, but it does provide “the first direct evidence for the flow of goods between hunter-gatherer groups in the Early Holocene at such a great distance”.
The so-called baton perce, or pierced rod, is a much-debated type of prehistoric artefact, typically 15 to 20 centimetres long, with at least one and often two holes drilled through them. Originally they were called batons de commandement (“baton of command”), but it was argued the title made an assumption about their function, which remains in dispute.
Many of these batons are decoratively carved, and most researchers believe they were used for straightening spears and arrows, or as spear-throwing tools. However, at least one study, from 1996, argued that they were handles for “brace drills”: sticks rotated against wood to generate friction for fire-making.
Jeff Glorfeld is a former senior editor of The Age newspaper in Australia, and is now a freelance journalist based in California, US.
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