Set in Stone: Human–Horse Relations as Embodied in Shaped Stone Balls

Ella Assaf*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The enigmatic presence of uniquely shaped, spherical stones attracted the attention of archaeologists at Oldowan sites in Africa as early as a century ago. Shaped stone balls (SSBs) are among the oldest implements used by humans. For nearly 2 million years, they accompanied ancient humans as a stable cultural anchor throughout the Lower Paleolithic period and beyond. These tools reflect techno-cultural processes and Lower Paleolithic human perceptions of their relationships with the non-human animal world. Nonetheless, the few techno-functional studies focussing on these items have only scraped the surface of their research potential. In this paper, I will explore evidence suggesting that SSBs embody the relations of ancient humans with a particular animal—the horse—and propose that they might have played an active role in the social and cosmological realms of Lower Paleolithic (LP) ontology. Several previous studies indicate that they were shaped through a meticulous process. Traces of use and organic residues of marrow/fat associate them with bone-breaking activities. Furthermore, a comprehensive contextual analysis points to a correlation, observed at various sites, between SSBs and large herbivores, specifically horses. This correlation supports the premise that early humans relied on SSBs to extract calories from horses and points to a possible link between the simultaneous disappearance of large horses and SSBs from the Levantine landscape at the end of the LP. The role of horses in Paleolithic diet and culture is well reflected in the archaeological record. Following recent anthropological views, I advocate that SSBs played an important role in the human–horse alignment, embodying within them the world of perceptions and relationships of ancient humans with this non-human animal who shared their habitat.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)64-105
Number of pages42
Issue number1
StatePublished - Apr 2024


  • Horse
  • Lower Paleolithic
  • Ontology
  • Shaped stone ball


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