Add a Comment to this Note (list members only)
Dead medium: Notched Bones
From: (Bruce Sterling)

Source(s): *Before Writing Volume 1: From Counting to Cuneiform* by Denise Schmandt-Besserat
University of Texas Press, Austin, 1992
ISBN 0-292-70783-5

page 158

"Although humans were present in Southwest Asia starting in the lower Paleolithic period as early as 600,000 years ago, no symbols have been preserved from those remote times. The first archaeological material attesting the use of symbols in the Near East belongs to the epoch of Neanderthal man, the Mousterian period, as late as 60,000 to 25,000 BC.

"The data are threefold. (((bruces remarks: the three varieties of these earliest known "symbols" were (1) red ochre (and other colored pigments) sometimes used to paint dead and possibly living human bodies; (2) Neanderthal funeral paraphernalia such as decorative flowers, teeth, pebbles and other knicknacks buried with corpses; and (3) etched bones, the world's earliest dead medium.)))

"The third category of artifacts bears graphic symbols == bone fragments engraved with a series of notches usually arranged in parallel fashion."(...)B>

page 159

"Notched bones continued to be used in the Upper Paleolithic. Five deeply incised gazelle scapulae were discovered in an Aurignacian layer at Hayonin in Israel that date about 28,000 BC. The cave of Ksar Akil in Lebanon produced one bone awl about 10 cm long bearing some 170 incisions grouped along the shaft in four different columns. The markings consist of mostly straight strokes with some instances of overlapping into V and X shapes. The rock shelter of Jiita, also in Lebanon, also yielded an incised bone used as an awl that bears three irregular rows of markings arranged in a zig-zag pattern. The artifacts from Ksar Akil and Jiita are dated to the late Kebaran period, about 15,000 to 12,000 BC.

"Notched bones are also present in Europe during most of the Upper Paleolithic period, between 29,000 and 11,000 BC. (...) Incised bones were recovered (...) at the two Natufian sites of Hayonim and Ain Mahalla, Palestine, about 10,000 BC, whereas two other Natufian settlements in the Negev, Rosh Zin and Wadi al-Hammeh in Jordan, as well as Zawi Chemi, a contemporaneous site in northern Iraq, produced pebbles and various limestone and bone implements engraved with parallel lines. (...)

page 160

"In the Near East, as in Europe, the function of the Paleolithic and Mesolithic incised bones (...) can only be hypothesized. (...) From the earliest days of archaeology, the notched bones have been interpreted as tallies, each notch representing one item. According to a recent theory by Alexander Marshack, the artifacts were lunar calendars, each incised line recording one appearance of the moon. This interpretation cannot be proven nor disproven nor can it be ignored."

(((bruces remarks: Whatever people were up to with these notched counting bones, it must have been of considerable relevance and urgency to them, because this medium persisted around our planet for a record ninety- thousand years.)))

Bruce Sterling (