Rituals are as old as mankind’s first thought. Modern ceremonies are mostly religious, but in the past, they held a wider purview. From initiation into adulthood to astronomy to honoring the gods, there were rituals for everything—even disposing of enemies and bringing meaning to cannibalism.
The physical remains left by ancient rituals give archaeologists a deeply personal glimpse into long-gone societies. Sometimes, these finds confirm long-held beliefs. Other times, they’ve turned them on their heads.
10. Paleolithic People ‘Killed’ Rocks
A new angle opened up in archaeology when researchers scrutinized small rocks. These were found in a cave in Italy called Caverna delle Arene Candide. Around 12,000 years ago, an Upper Paleolithic community used the site to bury 20 individuals. Considered a crucial archaeological area since the 1940s, there were plenty of things in the cavern to distract attention away from several oblong pebbles. More recently, however, archaeologists realized that around 29 of the stones did not come from the cave and had been brought from the nearby beach. Each appeared purposefully broken and had missing pieces that could not be found anywhere in the large cavern.
This could be evidence of a known ancient behavior: the symbolic “killing” of inanimate objects during a funeral. If so, the flat pebbles reveal an unknown funerary rite, during which they were used as spatulas to apply decorations to the deceased and then “killed,” with the missing pieces perhaps being kept as a link to a lost loved one. The ritual slaughter of artifacts was believed to have first appeared around 8,000 years ago. This find could move that back by as much as 5,000 years. It also sets a new caveat that even rocks cannot be ignored if ancient sites and their connected cultures are to be fully understood.