Shaped stone balls were used for bone marrow extraction at Lower Paleolithic Qesem Cave, Israel

Ella Assaf, Isabella Caricola, Avi Gopher, Jordi Rosell, Ruth Blasco, Oded Bar, Ezra Zilberman, Cristina Lemorini, Javier Baena, Ran Barkai, Emanuela Cristiani

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The presence of shaped stone balls at early Paleolithic sites has attracted scholarly attention since the pioneering work of the Leakeys in Olduvai, Tanzania. Despite the persistent presence of these items in the archaeological record over a period of two million years, their function is still debated. We present new results from Middle Pleistocene Qesem Cave on the use of these implements as percussion tools. Use-wear and abundant bone and fat residues found on ten shaped stone balls indicate crushing of fresh bones by thrusting percussion and provide direct evidence for the use of these items to access bone marrow of animal prey at this site. Two experiments conducted to investigate and verify functional aspects proved Qesem Cave shaped stone balls are efficient for bone processing and provide a comfortable grip and useful active areas for repeated use. Notably, the patina observed on the analyzed items precedes their use at the cave, indicating that they were collected by Qesem inhabitants, most probably from older Lower Paleolithic Acheulian sites. Thus, our results refer only to the final phases of the life of the items, and we cannot attest to their original function. As bone marrow played a central role in human nutrition in the Lower Paleolithic, and our experimental results show that the morphology and characteristics of shaped stone ball replicas are well-suited for the extraction of bone marrow, we suggest that these features might have been the reason for their collection and use at Qesem Cave. These results shed light on the function of shaped stone balls and are consistent with the significance of animal fat in the caloric intake of Middle Pleistocene humans as shown by the archeozoological evidence at Qesem Cave and possibly beyond.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0230972
JournalPLoS ONE
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 2020


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