Breaking bones: Nature or Culture?

Beatrice Demarchi and Reuven Yeshurun based on reviews by Terry O'Connor, Alan Outram and 1 anonymous reviewer

A recommendation of:
Delphine Vettese, Trajanka Stavrova, Antony Borel, Juan Marin, Marie-Hélène Moncel, Marta Arzarello, Camille Daujeard. A way to break bones? The weight of intuitiveness (2020), OSF Preprints, rebwt, ver. 4, peer-reviewed and recommended by PCI Archaeology. 10.31219/ version 4
Submitted: 01 April 2020, Recommended: 03 August 2020
Cite this recommendation as:
Beatrice Demarchi and Reuven Yeshurun (2020) Breaking bones: Nature or Culture?. Peer Community in Archaeology, 100004. 10.24072/pci.archaeo.100004

The nature of breaking long bones for obtaining marrow is important in Paleolithic archaeology, due to its widespread, almost universal, character. Provided that hammer-stone percussion marks can be correctly identified using experimental datasets (e.g., [1]), the anatomical location and count of the marks may be taken to reflect recurrent “cultural” traditions in the Paleolithic [2]. Were MP humans breaking bones intuitively or did they abide by a strict “protocol”, and, if the latter, was this protocol optimized for marrow retrieval or geared towards another, less obvious goal?
The new preprint by Vettese and colleagues [3] took a novel approach to this question, by conducting an experiment which involved novice butchers, relying on nothing but their intuition, and recording the way in which they broke marrow-rich bones. Some variability was noted in the “intuitive” patterns; indeed, future studies replicating this experiment and adding more variables such as more experienced butchers and non-bovid bones are warranted. Similarities in the means by which novice butchers break bones was also observed, and especially telling is the strong effect of anatomical features in most bones, except for the femur.

This paper provides a baseline for location analyses of percussion marks. Their dataset may therefore be regarded as a null hypothesis according to which the archaeological data could be tested. If Paleolithic patterns of percussion marks differ from Vettese et al.’s [3] “intuitive” patterns, then the null hypothesis is disproved and one can argue in favor of a learned pattern. The latter can be a result of ”culture”, as Vettese et al. [3] phrase it, in the sense of nonrandom action that draws on transmitted knowledge. Such comparisons bear a great potential for understanding the degree of technological behavior in the Paleolithic by factoring out the “natural” constraints of bone breakage patterns. Vettese et al. [3: fig. 14] started this discourse by comparing their experimental dataset to some Middle and Upper Paleolithic faunas; we are confident that many other studies will follow.


[1]Pickering, T.R., Egeland, C.P., 2006. Experimental patterns of hammerstone percussion damage on bones: Implications for inferences of carcass processing by humans. J. Archaeol. Sci. 33, 459–469.

[2]Blasco, R., Rosell, J., Domínguez-Rodrigo, M., Lozano, S., Pastó, I., Riba, D., Vaquero, M., Peris, J.F., Arsuaga, J.L., de Castro, J.M.B., Carbonell, E., 2013. Learning by Heart: Cultural Patterns in the Faunal Processing Sequence during the Middle Pleistocene. PLoS One 8, e55863.

[3]Vettese, D., Stavrova, T., Borel, A., Marin, J., Moncel, M.-H., Arzarello, M., Daujeard, C. (2020) A way to break bones? The weight of intuitiveness. BioRxiv, 011320, ver. 4 peer-reviewed and recommended by PCI Archaeology.