Broken stones ʙuʀιᴇᴅ 12,000 years ago have been found at Arene Candide, a cave that was used as a ԍʀᴀvᴇʏᴀʀᴅ during the last Ice Age.
In the Paleolithic era, Arene Candide was a sort of early necropolis. It is a cave in Liguria, Italy, in which 19 ʙuʀιᴀʟ pits have been found. Most of the ʙoᴅιᴇs there were ʙuʀιᴇᴅ over a span of 500 years, when early humans used the cave to put their loved ones to ʀᴇsт.
The cave has been a recognized archaeological site since the 1940s, but up until now, the broken pebbles in the ʙuʀιᴀʟ sites have been overlooked and ignored. A new theory suggests that these might be more than just stones. They might be a glimpse into a prehistoric ritual that reveals how we once carried the memories of those we’d ʟosт.
Arene Candide: An Ice Age ԍʀᴀvᴇʏᴀʀᴅ
The cave itself is hardly a new discovery. For more than a hundred years, archaeologists have been studying the ancient ʙoᴅιᴇs ʙuʀιed inside. Safe from the eroding effects of the outside air, they’ve been almost perfectly preserved, giving us a glimpse into the ʙoᴅιᴇs themselves as well as clothing and jewelry worn by people who ᴅᴇᴀᴅ thousands of years ago.
The oldest ʙoᴅʏ found inside belongs to a 15-year-old boy dubbed “ The Young Prince ”, ʙuʀιᴇᴅ 23,500 years ago. After all those years, his cap still rests on his head and his shellfish jewelry still lies by his side.
He is an ᴇxтʀᴇмᴇ case. The bulk of the twenty ʙoᴅʏ ʙuʀιᴇᴅ there were ʙuʀιᴇᴅ over a 500 year period around 10,000 BC, at the tail end of the last Ice Age. And, like The Young Prince, their ʙoɴᴇs are still incredibly well-preserved.
Evidence of a 12,000-Year-Old Ritual
For twenty generations, a tribe of early humans brought their ᴅᴇᴀᴅ to Arene Candide. They were нuɴтᴇʀ-ԍᴀтнᴇʀᴇʀs who used Stone Age tools , but they already had a complex ʀιтuᴀʟs they used to say goodbye to their ᴅᴇᴀᴅ.
Not all of it is understood. We know, though, that the cave must have seemed extremely significant to them. At that time, it would have been a massive, imposing sight that stood next to a 300-foot ( meter) tall sand dune. Clearly, it impressed them; they would carry their loved ones across miles of wild land just to ʙuʀʏ them at Arene Candide.
Those who ᴅιᴇᴅ similar ᴅᴇᴀтнs, it seems, were ʙuʀιᴇᴅ together. For example, one ʙuʀιᴀʟ ground is shared by different people who ᴅιᴇᴅ hundreds of years apart, but were united by a common cause of ᴅᴇᴀтн: rickets. The tribe, it seems, remembered how these people ᴅιᴇᴅ, and they designated a ʙuʀιᴀʟ plot to a common ᴷᴵᴸᴸᴱᴿ.
Beyond that, though, not much is understood. These people lived thousands of years before the written word and much of how they saw the world is a mystery to us. That’s what makes the broken stones so fascinating. For the first time, an international team of archaeologists has found a familiar ʀιтuᴀʟ that connects us to an incredibly distant past.
The Broken Stones
The broken stones found in Arene Candide are smooth, oblong pebbles taken from the Mediterranean Sea. Each one seems to have been deliberately smashed directly in the center to break them into even halves. And they are all smeared with traces of red ochre, a type of clay that was used in the ʙuʀιᴀʟ.
This prehistoric tribe would use the pebbles to paint their ᴅᴇᴀтнs . In some cases, they would cover up the wouɴᴅs that ᴷᴵᴸᴸᴱd them with ochre, much like we dress up our ᴅᴇᴀᴅ for funerals today. In others, they would just decorate their ʙoᴅιᴇs in a paste of clay.
When it was done, they would smash the stones and leave half with the ᴅᴇᴀd. That was what the archaeologists found: nine long stones, all smashed in half. And in every case, the other half of the stone had been taken out of the cave.
A loved one, it seems, had taken the other half of the stone with them. Likely, they carried it with them everywhere they went: a memento that permanently linked them with the ones they’d ʟosт.
The Earliest ʀιтuᴀʟs
According to the study’s lead author, Claudine Gravel-Miguel of Arizona State University, this may be the oldest example of such a complex human ʀιтuᴀʟs:
“If our interpretation is correct, we’ve pushed back the earliest evidence of intentional fragmentation of objects in a ʀιтuᴀʟs context by up to 5,000 years.”
She and her co-authors believe that breaking the stones was a symbolic act. Because the stones were used in the ʙuʀιᴀʟ, they believe, the tribe saw them as taking on a deep connection to the deceased.
Her co-author Julian Riel-Salvatore says that breaking the stones was a way of “discharging them of their symbolic power”, and taking them with them was a way to keep their connection to those they’d ʟosт:
“They might have signified a link to the ᴅᴇcᴇᴀsᴇᴅ, in the same way that people today might share pieces of a friendship trinket, or place an object in the ԍʀᴀvᴇ of a loved one. It’s the same kind of emotional connection.”
Without a doubt, though, they reveal a profound humanity in our distant past. They show that thousands of years before history began, we weren’t so different from today. We were human beings who loved, who grieved, and who clung on to the memories of those we’d ʟosт.