Feb. 9 (UPI) -- Some 12,000 years ago, Paleolithic peoples living along the coast of what's now northwestern Italy carried pebbles from the beach to their seaside caves for use in burial rituals. The small, flat, oblong stones were used to scoop up and apply ochre to the deceased prior to burial.
New analysis of these stones suggests they were systematically broken. In a paper on the ritualistic stones -- published this week in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal -- a team of scientists from the University of Montreal, Arizona State University and University of Genoa argued the pebbles were "killed" to rid them of their "symbolic power," gained through contact with the deceased.
"If our interpretation is correct, we've pushed back the earliest evidence of intentional fragmentation of objects in a ritual context by up to 5,000 years," lead study author Claudine Gravel-Miguel, a PhD candidate at Arizona State, said in a news release. "The next oldest evidence dates to the Neolithic period in Central Europe, about 8,000 years ago. Ours date to somewhere between 11,000 and 13,000 years ago, when people in Liguria were still hunter-gatherers."
Researchers broke similar pebbles collected from the beach in attempt to confirm the purposefulness of the fragmentation. Their experiments -- and the fact no whole, ochre-stained pebbles were recovered -- suggest the pebbles were deliberately broken.
Because scientists failed to find two congruent halves, they suggest part of the stones were kept as souvenirs -- a link to the deceased -- while the other parts were buried with the body.
Researchers say their findings are a reminder of the archaeological insights seemingly meaningless objects can offer.
"Historically, archeologists haven't really looked at these objects -- if they see them at a site, they usually go 'Oh, there's an ordinary pebble,' and then discard it with the rest of the sediment," said co-author Julien Riel-Salvatore, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Montreal. "We need to start paying attention to these things that are often just labeled as rocks. Something that looks like it might be natural might actually have important artifactual meaning."