Sometime around 12,000 years ago, a group of Paleolithic people went to the a beach on the Mediterranean Sea and gathered up pebbles. They were looking for a certain size and shape of rock, small and oblong. When they had collected enough, they used the pebbles for a special purpose: to apply red ochre coloring to the body of a dead person, as part of a funeral rite.
Millennia later, researchers have discovered 29 of those pebbles in an important Paleolithic gravesite. According to their analysis, published in a new report in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal, those ancient people then purposefully broke the stones by hitting them at their center. The researchers believe they were “killing” the stones, breaking them of the power they had obtained from touching the dead body.
The cave where the pebbles were found, the Caverna della Arene Candide, is on the coast of Italy, not far from Genoa. It was rediscovered in the 1860s and has long been a source of evidence for archaeologists about the traditions of people living far in the past. Archaeologists have found 19 well-preserved burials here, including one of a young man buried 23,500 years ago.
The pebbles the researchers examined still had traces of red ochre on them. Archaeologists have found similar evidence of people breaking objects as part of funeral rites, but none that goes back this far in time. “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,” the study’s lead author said in a release.