A team of Spanish archaeologists say a prehistoric deer antler baton found in an Iberian cave and dating back 14,000 years indicates Stone Age tribes travelled and traded with other groups from Europe, as similar artefacts have only previously been found in what is now France.
The baton was found in the Aizkoitxo cave, which is an archaeological site from the Upper Palaeolithic period located in the municipality of Mendaro, in the northern Spanish province of Gipuzkoa, in the autonomous community of Basque Country. The site has been the subject of numerous excavations since 1909 but it is the first time that the experts have found such a mysterious item.
Dr Blanca Ochoa, 33, one of the researchers who investigated the find and who is part of a team from the Prehistory department at the Basque Country University, told Real Press in an exclusive interview that the baton was found during some excavations in 2009 but it had never been studied until now.
According to the researcher, the baton “is the first piece found on the Iberian Peninsula”. But over the years, around 400 similar pieces have been found in France, which confirms that “there were cultural exchanges among peoples living 14,000 years ago, who shared information about working with stone and bones, and it also provides us with information that there was a movement of people spanning thousands of miles.”
The period in question, some 14,000 years ago, is part of the later phase of the Magdalenian era, which is one of the last phases of the Upper Palaeolithic. People back then, according to Dr Ochoa, were “nomadic, moving depending on the time of year, looking for prey to hunt and food they could harvest”. She explained that while each trip did not necessarily take a long time, there were multiple nomadic periods matching different times of year and different seasons.
This experts recently published their findings about the mysterious piece in the academic journal Complutum.
While similar to some of the ones found in France, the antler baton also has some striking differences that set it apart, including the fact that it has four holes and is adorned with representations of various animals, including a deer, and two sets of deer antlers, which is not very common.
Dr Ochoa explained that the baton is around 30 centimetres (11.8 inches) long, which is rather long compared to other similar artefacts, and it is also broken, so it is believed that it could have been even longer.
She said: “It has two deer antlers and two other animals that could be horses, donkeys or even rabbits, although they have not been formally identified yet because the way they are presented is a bit ambiguous and was done on purpose.”
According to the expert, this ambiguity is not very common. During that period of history, representations were very naturalistic and literal, while “this one is more figurative, very well done from a technical point of view, without mistakes, but they decided to do a species that is currently unclear.”
There are still numerous other secrets that the mysterious artefact has yet to share, not only about its function in society, with around 40 different hypotheses for researchers to pick from, but also regarding the meaning of the symbols etched into it. The researcher explained that the symbols might have a special meaning only known to the people at the time, like a symbol to identify the people’s groups, cultures or traditions.
The experts have rejected the notion that the animals etched into the antler could have a link with hunting, with Dr Ochoa saying there are no representations of “arrows or other hunting symbols.”
The experts are currently baffled when it comes to the purpose this baton served. When the first batons were found in France, they were believed to be symbols of power, but over the years, this theory has lost support in favour of numerous new hypotheses. It is currently believed that the antler baton played a special role in the lives of those who etched the carvings into it.
The baton found in Spain has, according to Ochoa, “very polished holes, which means it was used with soft material”, so it could have been used to straighten bones that the people were working on, or to tighten ropes used for tents, or as a base to support weapons, or even to plait various fabrics, such as rope, leather or hair, using the holes.
As the functionality of this baton is still unknown, the researcher said they have not dismissed the possibility that “it had several functions at the same time, like a tool and then a symbolic function which will remain a mystery.”
The baton was found in a cave along with remains of a burial from the later Chalcolithic period and the researcher explained that the people living at that time tended to bury their dead in holes dug in caves, which also means that the caves played an important symbolic and spiritual role.
According to Dr Ochoa, while the people lived in tents, they still used the caves, not only for burials, but also as a shelter during some of the harsher seasons, and even to shelter cattle.