Human Bone Daggers in New Guinea were Used to Strike the Fatal Wound

Prized as symbols of a warrior’s strength, prestige, and power, bone daggers were once widespread artistic and functional tools in New Guinea. New research on the subject shows that not all the bones used in manufacturing them were animal. Human thigh bones were also used for the daggers, albeit rarely. But that rare material made them superior in quality and status in tribal society.
The paper published in the Royal Society Open Science journal explains that the New Guinea bone daggers were commonly used as close-combat weapons in which a warrior would stab his victim in the neck, usually after the victim was wounded by a spear or arrow.
ZME Science reports that accounts from the 1800s and early 1900s claim New Guinea tribes also used bone daggers in mutilation and cannibalism practices, although Nathaniel Dominy, a professor of anthropology at Dartmouth College and lead researcher in the study, says those reports were created by missionaries or others, who may have exaggerated, misinterpreted, or otherwise altered the story.

Mechanical failure near the tip is evident in some bone daggers. This human bone dagger is attributed to the Kwoma people, with affinities to the Iatmul area of the Middle Sepik River (early or mid-twentieth century. ( Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College )
Dominy and the other scholars looked at 11 bone daggers from the early and mid-twentieth century derived from human femora and cassowary tibiotarsi (five human and six cassowary). One of the cassowary bone daggers was made in the 1970s and bought from a private art dealer. They wanted to see what made the artifacts special and to compare the decorated daggers carved out of cassowary and human thigh bones. To do so, they used computed tomography to examine the structural mechanics and also subjected the more modern dagger to strength testing.

Three-dimensional reconstructions of each dagger examined in the study. (Dominy et al. 2018 )
The results of the study were published in Royal Society Open Science and show the human bone daggers were stronger than the ones taken from the cassowary. They write:
“[…] human and cassowary bones have similar material properties and that the geometry of human bone daggers results in higher moments of inertia and a greater resistance to bending. Data from finite-element models corroborated the superior mechanical performance of human bone daggers, revealing greater resistance to larger loads with fewer failed elements.”

Cantilever bending test configuration; the cassowary bone dagger was fixed at 20% of the overall length from the tip. ( Dominy et al. 2018 )
Dominy explained why the human bone dagger performed better in testing,
“The human bone dagger is stronger because men gave it a slight different shape—it has greater curvature. We believe that such a shape was done deliberately to minimize the chance of the dagger breaking during fighting. And the reason that men engineered human bone daggers to resist breaking is because human bone daggers carried a lot of social prestige.”
Moreover, the human thigh bone daggers were said to have more social value and symbolic capital than the bird bone daggers. Both abstract and representational elaborate designs were carved into the bone daggers and they were worn as personal adornments.

New Guinea bone daggers have social prestige and have been worn as personal adornment. ( Bruno Zanzottera )
The authors write in their paper,
“as close-combat weapons, bone daggers were exemplars par excellence of male fighting abilities, and a highly desirable status symbol among men. In addition, bone itself was the embodiment of strength, both mechanically and symbolically with powers enmeshed in the supernatural world.”
While seen as inferior to the rarer human bone daggers, cassowary bone daggers were also seen as prestigious items for their owners. Cassowaries held much cultural significance: the birds were associated with women, and in New Guinea myth they have been cast as women, wives, and sometimes even enemies rather than as birds. The authors write , “Possession of a cassowary bone dagger was thus a plausible signal of male hunting ability, physical and ritual strength and status.”

Northern or single-wattled cassowary ( Casuarius unappendiculatus ); females can stand 2 m (6’7”) tall and weigh up to 58 kg (128 lbs) ( Holger Ehlers ). They have stout legs with dense, apneumatic bones and large, three-toed (tridactylus) feet with a dangerous medial toe (digit II), equipped with a prodigious spike-like claw that has proven lethal following the bird’s powerful kick. ( Christian Hütter )
Top Image: Bone daggers of the Sepik watershed, New Guinea. (a) Human bone dagger attributed to the Upper Sepik River . ( b) Cassowary bone dagger attributed to the Abelam people. Source: Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College
By Alicia McDermott


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