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BY 4.0 license Open Access Published by De Gruyter Open Access April 6, 2022

Animal Teeth and Mesolithic Society

Lars Larsson and T. Douglas Price
From the journal Open Archaeology


In several graves from the Mesolithic sites of Skateholm, South Sweden, animal teeth were found. Some of these teeth were used as beads in clothing. The strontium isotope analysis of 11 animal teeth is reported and discussed in comparison with human values from burials at the sites and baseline values from South Sweden. Roughly half of the animal teeth are nonlocal and from different places of origin. The beads themselves appear to carry symbolic information that may be related to the physical or social attributes of the wearer. This study involved a detailed investigation of the use-wear around the perforation and its relation to the local and nonlocal origin of the teeth.

1 Introduction

The relationship between culture and nature can be considered in many different contexts. It becomes especially clear in the hunting societies where human actions are completely dependent on nature to provide the means of existence. Knowledge of the wild is a prerequisite for survival, which in turn generates patterns and rules in the world. The combination of knowledge of animal behavior and the special properties of a metaphorical nature that humans attach to the game is of major importance. In material culture, this combination is difficult to distinguish. The characteristics that humans attach to animals had focused on the parts of the game that, in various forms, were involved in burials. The teeth from different animals that were incorporated in the design of decorated costumes are special objects in this context.

From this perspective, we consider the tooth beads found in the graves from the late-Mesolithic cemeteries of Skateholm I and II, located in the southernmost part of present-day Sweden (Figure 1). The sites, in each case, consist of both settlement and burial grounds on islands in a lagoon (Larsson, 1988, 1993, 2016). Due to transgressions, the settlers were forced to move from a lower island (Skateholm II) to a slightly higher island (Skateholm I) which after a time, also partially submerged.

Figure 1 
               Location of Skateholm in the province of Scania in southern Sweden. The dark brown color-marked areas with exposed, older bedrock in Sweden.

Figure 1

Location of Skateholm in the province of Scania in southern Sweden. The dark brown color-marked areas with exposed, older bedrock in Sweden.

The cemeteries excavated in the early 1980s contained a total of 77 human graves and 10 dog graves (Persson & Persson, 1984, 1988). Skateholm II is the oldest burial field and both Skateholm I and II occurred in the time between 5200 and 4800 cal BC. Several burials contained tooth beads. The identification of tooth beads was not always certain. In that case, consideration was given to animal teeth that were transformed in various ways (perforated or ribbed) to be able to attach to the clothing or directly to the buried person.

Of particular interest is to try to deepen the study of the relationship between the tooth beads and the members of society who wore them. Is it possible to determine to what extent the tooth beads were used and whether there may have been heirlooms in the decoration? Did the tooth beads made from animals fall near the site or can they be perceived as an exchange item?

As for the first question, this can be related to a detailed study conducted on the tooth beads from the cemeteries of Zvejnieki in northern Latvia dating to the Mesolithic and Early Neolithic periods with an emphasis on the use-wear in the perforation of the teeth used as beads (Larsson, 2006). More than 2,000 beads were studied. The wear was divided into three levels - none or slight wear, moderate wear, and heavy wear. Clear differences between different tooth types in the same embellished dress could be distinguished. The time when individuals received their own embellished dresses could also be identified (Larsson, 2020). Alas, the majority of the beads from Skateholm are not as well preserved as those in Zvejnieki. Therefore, use-wear can only be determined on a small number of teeth.

2 Tooth Beads

The term tooth bead is used for a category of finds of teeth with perforated or incised roots that were attached to clothing or used as jewelry in the Mesolithic Age (Figure 2). At Skateholm, teeth from red deer (Cervus elaphus) are the most common for tooth bead production. A slightly less abundant is the evidence of wild boar (Sus scofa). Only a small number of teeth belonged to elks (Alces alces), bears (Ursus arctos), and aurochs (Bos primigenius). A single tooth from a wolf (Canis lupus) was also identified. It is interesting that teeth from roe deer (Capreolus capreolus) and small predators such as martens (Martes martes) and otters (Lutra lutra) as well as the ringed seal (Pusa hispida), which are commonly spotted in the waste at the site, were not used for bead making (Jonsson, 1988).

Figure 2 
               Tooth beads around the waist of a woman in Grave VIII, Skateholm II. Photo: Lars Larsson.

Figure 2

Tooth beads around the waist of a woman in Grave VIII, Skateholm II. Photo: Lars Larsson.

Due to uncomplete preservation, however, several teeth show greater or lesser loss of the less-resistant tooth root where changes were made to attach the tooth. For all the beads, this was done with a perforation made using a drill. In cases where a significant amount of enamel was found in connection with other teeth with a perforation, it was assumed that these partial teeth were perforated. However, there are several examples where only enamel remained.

The number of beads in a tomb showed a significant variation. In the grave of an adult woman (Grave VIII at Skateholm II), more than 100 tooth beads from at least 27 similar red deer jaws were used for decoration around the hip (Figure 2). In another grave (Grave XXII), there were more than 100 tooth beads around the hip of a woman in a sitting position. Due to the poor degree of preservation, the grave is still in preparation and it is not possible to determine the total number of tooth beads. In other cases, it is a much smaller number. Their location in relation to the body varied considerably. The most common location for women was around the hips. As for men, beads are rare but there were graves where beads can be found on the head as well as close to arms or legs.

The wear on the perforation of the tooth beads can vary for several reasons. The most important is how the bead was attached to the substrate. A bead that was allowed to hang freely and thus moved when the substrate was in motion wore faster than if, for example, it was fixed to the substrate by being partially tucked into the substrate. Wear also depends on how often a decorated dress has been used. Experiments had shown that beads showed slight wear of perforation if they were loosely attached to a bracelet and worn daily for six months including three months in excavation activities. This should mean that tooth beads with severe wear were used for a considerable time.

3 Strontium Isotope Analysis

The principles of isotopic provenancing are straightforward and depend on (1) tooth enamel, which forms early in life and remains largely unaltered through life and after death, and (2) isotopes that vary geographically and deposit in tooth enamel during formation. If the isotopic ratio in tooth enamel differs from the local value at the place of burial, then the buried material can be identified as non-local (Price, 2015). As multiple places can have similar ratios, it is usually not possible to determine the precise place of origin.

Strontium isotopes, in general terms, vary with geology and enter animal tissue through the food chain. 87Sr is formed over time by the radioactive decay of rubidium (87Rb, t1/2 ∼ 4.710 years) and comprises approximately 7.04% of total strontium present in nature. Other isotopes of strontium are nonradiogenic and include 84Sr (∼0.56%), 86Sr (∼9.87%), and 88Sr (∼82.53%). Because natural materials have variable strontium contents, strontium isotope compositions are expressed as ratios to normalize variation in absolute 87Sr abundances that are due solely to variation in strontium content and not the relative abundance of the isotopes. Variation in strontium isotope composition in natural materials is conventionally expressed as 87Sr/86Sr.

The teeth were cleaned with a dental drill equipped with a carbide burr (to remove any visible dirt or contamination). A sample was then taken from the tooth using a dental drill equipped with a circular saw. The remaining dentin was removed from the tooth fragment using a dental drill with a carbide burr, leaving the blue-white enamel. In some cases, the fragments of enamel were removed from the base of the crown. The enamel was then ground to powder, weighed, and placed in a labeled plastic vial. Measurement of strontium isotopes was done at the Geochronology and Isotope Geochemistry Lab at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill by Paul Fullagar and Ryan Mills. The samples were dissolved in nitric acid and the strontium fraction purified by ion-selective chromatography (Eichrom Sr resin), before analysis by TIMS on a VG Sector 54 mass spectrometer run in dynamic mode. Internal precision in the laboratory was consistently around 0.0007% standard error (or 1σ = 0.00006 in the ratio of a particular sample). Long-term, repeated measurements of SRM-987 were around 0.710260 – an acceptable difference from the recognized value of 0.710250 – and raw sample values from individual runs were standardized to the recognized value of SRM-987.

However, levels of strontium isotopes in human tissue may vary from the actual geological background for several reasons (Price et al., 2002). Factors include differential weathering of minerals in the rock, atmospheric dust or moisture, and the deposition of aeolian, alluvial, or glacial sediments on top of bedrock geology. Complex geological areas may have several different sources of 87Sr/86Sr contributing to human diets. Coastal populations are impacted by several phenomena. Marine foods, for example, have a constant strontium isotope ratio of 0.7092, the value of seawater. The same ratio, 0.7092, may also be introduced by sea spray and rainfall in coastal areas. For these and other reasons, it is necessary to measure the bioavailable levels of 87Sr/86Sr to ascertain local strontium isotope ratios. Bioavailable strontium isotope ratios are those available in the food chain.

To learn more about the beads, 11 teeth were chosen for strontium isotope analyses in an initial study of available samples. The results of the isotopic analyses are presented in Table 1, along with other information about the teeth. As the measurements of carbon and oxygen isotopes did not provide much useful information, our discussion will focus on strontium isotope ratios. Samples selected included animal teeth that were used for beads as well as unmodified teeth present in the refuse, to determine whether some kind of difference existed between animals hunted for food and animals that might have been hunted only for their teeth. Teeth from beaver, dog, red deer, marten, otter, aurochs, wild boar, and elk were chosen for analysis. Regarding use-wear, there were examples of slight, but also moderate and heavy wear.

Table 1

Context and isotopic measurements for 11 animal teeth from Skateholm

Lab No. Site No. Sq./Grave Structure Location Common Name Genus/sp. Context 87Sr/86Sr δ13C δ16O
F10306 I 107/120 Level 90 Beaver Castor Refuse 0.7095 −14.9 −7.6
F10307 I 33 53 Level 2 Dog Canis Grave fill 0.7104 −13.5 −5.3
F10308 II 33 59 359 Red deer Cervus Bead 0.7107 −14.4 −5.6
F10305 I 14 22 100/127 Roe deer Capreolus Grave fill 0.7108 −15.2 −6.7
F10304 I 14 22 100/127 Marten Martes Grave fill 0.7108 −12.7 −5.5
F10313 I 103/120 Grey sand Otter Lutra Refuse 0.7112 −14.5 −3.9
F10312 I 22 43 100/127 Red deer Cervus Bead 0.7114 −17.5 −8.0
F10310 I 53 86 Left hand Wild boar Sus Bead 0.7117 −14.7 −6.9
F10664 I 46 118 15 Aurochs Bos Bead 0.7117 −14.6 −5.6
F10303 I Str 86 86 Left hand Wild boar Sus Bead 0.7118 −13.8 −8.0
F10309 I 106/119 Occ. layer Red deer Cervus Refuse 0.7119 −15.4 −7.4

Table 2 provides descriptive statistics for the three isotopic ratios measured for the teeth from Skateholm. The mean and 1  standard deviation (SD) of the 87Sr/86Sr values for the 13 teeth was 0.7121 ± 0.0027, ranging from 0.7095 to 0.7189. A ranked bar graph of the 87Sr/86Sr values for two groups of human burials from Skateholm I and II is shown with the graph for tooth values in Figure 3. A high mean for the teeth is caused by the two high values in the data.

Table 2

Descriptive statistics for isotope ratios from Skateholm tooth beads

87Sr/86Sr δ13C δ16O
Mean 0.7121 −14.6 −6.3
SD 0.0027 1.1 1.2
Min 0.7095 −17.5 −8.0
Max 0.7189 −12.7 −3.9
Count 13 13 13
Figure 3 
               Ranked bar graphs of 87Sr/86Sr values for two groups of human burials, blue bars, for Skateholm I and II, and the teeth. Red bars are teeth from refuse, green bars are tooth beads from burials.

Figure 3

Ranked bar graphs of 87Sr/86Sr values for two groups of human burials, blue bars, for Skateholm I and II, and the teeth. Red bars are teeth from refuse, green bars are tooth beads from burials.

4 Discussion

The beads were more than just for decoration. In the case of Grave VIII, the fact that the tooth beads were taken from a considerable number of red deer should in itself mark a special relationship with both the species of animal and the role of the wearer in society. The beads might represent different perspectives about the interred and linked to central ideas within the society. To wear an embellished dress representing several animals might signify the wearer as a special person in the society or a close affiliate of a hunter with high prestige. It might also be that beads have an extra value if they originate from an animal that was dangerous to confront and kill. Some might also come from another area. It might be that animals represented among the beads had a special value if they were extinct in the region.

The tooth beads would have had a multifaceted meaning and can be viewed as a kind of abstraction of the wild environment (Larsson, 2012, 2020; Sørensen, 2017). When teeth are extracted from the animals and reshaped, they are transformed into the domestic sphere. As pendants, carnivorous and herbivorous animals, and animals from marine and terrestrial environments, are mixed in an artificial world completely ruled by humans. Yet, at the same time, they remain a part of the wild, and their special qualities might be transferred to the wearer. The use of the teeth from particular animals may be generally taken to reflect norms and values accepted by individuals living in a shared physical and social environment. The symbolic or social meanings of the decoration were based upon concepts accepted by the society and did not need to be fully known and visible to people other than those who approved the outfit.

As there is also a substantial burial population at Skateholm, we measured strontium isotope ratios in the tooth enamel of some 39 individuals − 21 at Skateholm I and 18 at Skateholm II (Price et al., 2021). The strontium isotope ratios for Skateholm I had a mean and 1 SD of 0.7107 ± 0.0004 and at Skateholm II, these values were 0.7106 ± 0.0003. In general, it would appear that only a few individuals among the 39 we examined at the two Skateholm sites were not local to the general area of southwestern Scania.

Several of the animal teeth pendants show the same values as humans (Table 1). Although there was only one bead from Skateholm II, there appears to be no difference between the values of strontium of the interred at the two sites. There also appears to be no difference between the teeth from refuse deposits and those from burials. Some animals were hunted in the vicinity of the lagoon in which the settlements were located.

Several samples could be identified as nonlocal. Two samples from a red deer and an elk showed a pronounced higher difference in their strontium values. The tooth from red deer is a refuse find and might indicate either long-distance hunting or exchange of animal parts. The tooth of the elk was perforated (Figure 4). This bead exhibited use-wear of minor intensity in the perforation. This could be an example of an exchange system between southernmost Scania and perhaps the central or northern part of Scania, or elsewhere in central southern Scandinavia. Elk was almost extinct in the southernmost part of Scania during the Late Mesolithic Age. Few finds of elk bones were present in the refuse layer (Jonsson, 1988).

Figure 4 
               Perforation in elk tooth discussed in this study. Photo: Lars Larsson.

Figure 4

Perforation in elk tooth discussed in this study. Photo: Lars Larsson.

The next four samples had higher values than any human from Skateholm and were probably nonlocal, at least to the immediate area around the sites. These values include a red deer tooth from the refuse layer and three beads from graves, two from pigs and one from aurochs. The tooth bead from an aurochs was of special interest. It is the only species not found among the refuse of the settlements and was thought to be extinct at least in the southernmost part of Sweden. Here, the use-wear study might provide an additional perspective. The perforation of the bead is heavily weathered, suggesting a long time of use. Could it be an heirloom used for several generations from a time when aurochs were still living in the area? A radiocarbon date might solve the problem, but alas the tooth was so poorly preserved that there was not sufficient collagen present.

There was one value lower than the humans at Skateholm that belonged to a beaver. This may be a nonlocal animal, but because of the unusual water-focused life of the beaver, we hesitate to comment.

If we ignore the beaver tooth as an unknown, then 6/12 or half of the teeth appear to be nonlocal to the Skateholm area, suggesting that the exchange of beads may have been an important part of life in this ancient Mesolithic community.

To date, we have only a general knowledge of the baseline values from different major geological deposits in southern Scania. But there may be areas of different 87Sr/86Sr composition not far from Skateholm. About 15 km to the north one could find the special geological phenomenon of upraised bedrock covering a considerable area. We still do not have strontium values from that region. In the future, a more detailed map of these values would be made to pinpoint more precise areas in which an animal or human with values that deviate from the study region might have originated. These results show that there had been an extensive exchange of tooth pearls between communities, which in some cases, may have covered significant distances.

The fact that the wearers of these tooth beads did not themselves show values that indicate that they came from areas outside the vicinity of the sites indicated that they were objects that were exchanged, not the people who had moved. This further confirmed the notion that hunter-gatherer societies were permanent residents (Price et al., 2021).

Special Issue published in cooperation with Meso’2020 – Tenth International Conference on the Mesolithic in Europe, edited by Thomas Perrin, Benjamin Marquebielle, Sylvie Philibert, and Nicolas Valdeyron

  1. Conflict of interest: Authors state no conflict of interest.


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Received: 2021-04-28
Revised: 2022-01-07
Accepted: 2022-02-23
Published Online: 2022-04-06

© 2022 Lars Larsson and T. Douglas Price, published by De Gruyter

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.