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Prehistoric people developed a technique for making a playdough-like material from mammoth ivory

By The Siberian Times reporter
02 January 2021

The skill of ivory softening was used more than 12,000 years ago to make tools - or decorations - that still puzzle modern science.

While the scientists can’t yet fathom why these shapes were made, the ‘playdough’ crafting technique helps them realise that these ancient people had much greater skills than they have imagined. Picture: Evgeny Artemyev

A dozen solid elongated ivory bars crafted from softened ivory, and several figurines made from spongy parts of large mammoth bones, and resembling various animals were found at the Afontova Gora-2 archeological site by river Yenisey in Krasnoyarsk. 

The finds were made in early 2000, but were re-examined recently by Dr Evgeny Artemyev who said that the figurines can be either Ice Age toys made by people who populated this area of the modern-day Siberia, or a form of primeval art. 

‘When you look at them at different angles, they resemble different types of animals. 

‘It is possible that this is the new form of Palaeolithic art, that the international scientific community is not aware of yet’, the archeologist said. 

Prehistoric people developed a technique for making a playdough-like material from woolly mammoth ivory


Prehistoric people developed a technique for making a playdough-like material from woolly mammoth ivory


Prehistoric people developed a technique for making a playdough-like material from woolly mammoth ivory
These animal-like figurines were made from spongy parts of woolly mammoth bones, and could have been either toys, or some form of premieval art. Pictures: Evgeny Artemyev


The two prehistoric figurines appear similar to a bear and a mammoth, says Dr Artemyev, who has worked at the site since the 1990s. 

Looked at from another angle, one of the figurines may be a sleeping human.

The ivory bars, some of them phallic-shaped, discovered at the same site were created with a technique which made them almost ‘fluid-like’. 

‘The mammoth tusk was softened to the extent that it resembled modern-day playdough. We don’t know yet how ancient people achieved that’, Dr Artemyev said. 

‘On the items we can see traces of stone implements and the flows of the substance before it stiffened. This means that the tusk was softened significantly, the consistency was viscous. 

‘Most likely it was not for the entire tusk, but its upper part which was processed’, explained Artemyev. 

Prehistoric people developed a technique for making a playdough-like material from woolly mammoth ivory


Prehistoric people developed a technique for making a playdough-like material from woolly mammoth ivory


Prehistoric people developed a technique for making a playdough-like material from woolly mammoth ivory
Dr Evgeny Artemyev and Afontova Gora-2 archeological site in Krasnoyarsk. Pictures: Evgeny Artemyev


The archeologist said that he didn’t come across similar finds on other Palaeolithic sites.

‘Perhaps we don’t get to see reports about such finds because scientific teams rarely publish about items that can’t be properly explained. These elongated ivory bars could be blanks prepared to make making implements, or tools, or future toys - or anything else, we can only guess’, Dr Artemyev said. 

While the scientists can’t yet fathom why these shapes were made, the ‘playdough’ crafting technique helps them realise that these ancient people had much greater skills than they have imagined.

‘We tend to think of them as more primitive than they were. Yet they had technologies we cannot properly understand and describe, such as this softening of the tusks’, the archeologist said. 

Dr Evgeny Artemyev works for Krasnoyarsk laboratory of Archaeology and Paleogeography of Middle Siberia, Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography of the Siberian branch of Russian Academy of Sciences

Comments (4)

As a child I learned to boil bones in vinegar so they could be formed. I wonder if tannic acid or an acid made by boiling acidic fruits could be sufficiently concentrated by boiling to soften these materials?
Gordon Cooper, Bremerton WA USA
12/01/2021 08:34
3
0
The ancient greeks would boil elephant tusks to delaminate them, they could then be moulded onto large statues etc.
David, England
08/01/2021 00:42
1
0
Mammoth tusk straightening was supposed happened in the Sunghir site, the two spears along the double burial 30000 yrs BP. The techniques are unknown, and today not reproducible, due to the lack of legally available fresh ivory.
RICCARDO ARISIO, ITALY
06/01/2021 07:33
1
0
Long ago I read that vinegar was used to soften ivory and make it pliable.
John, Benton Harbor, Michigan USA
06/01/2021 05:14
2
0
1

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