Bony dinosaurs from New Guinea, carved at the top of human bone, and below from the bones of a bird, called the Cassowary. (Nathaniel J. Dominy, © Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College)
One hundred years ago, if you lived in the Sepik region of New Guinea and wanted to impress your neighbors, you would strap a bone-made dagger to your biceps. Not just any skeletal parts would be enough. The most common bone weapons came from the legs of giant flightless birds called cassowaries. But the most valuable materials were human thigh bones, away from a defeated enemy – or from the remains of his father at his death.
Nathaniel J. Dominy, an anthropologist at Dartmouth College, has had these bone daggers for most of a decade. He explored the Hood Museum of Art in Hanover, N.H., when he found the museum's collection of bone weapons. The ornate patterns cut into the daggers bound him.
The most powerful symbols were carved in the grip, Dominy said, so a Wielder could gain strength from holding a dagger. "They are really striking objects," he said. "Impressive, wild and beautiful."
Daggers with human bones are also rare. Of the approximately 500 bony endowments exhibited in the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the Yale Peabody Natural History Museum in New Haven, Connecticut, and the Field Museum in Chicago, only 21 are carved out of human parts. The last Guinean people made such daggers at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. One could not tell how old this tradition was, said Dominy, because there are only a few records that go beyond the contemporary accounts of European colonial observers.
Dominy and his colleagues cite in a new study in the journal Royal Society Open Science The German anthropologist Leonhard Schultze-Jena, who functionally described the weapons in 1914: "The dagger serves not only to penetrate the main arteries, but at the same time as Lever with which to twist the enemy's pierced neck to tear apart the throat and break the neck with sufficient force. "
Bony daggers were status symbols. "All cultures on earth will adorn utensils such as pots and pans or their own bodies," Dominy said. These daggers are no different. The killing of a cassowary was a source of status, and it was even better to carve a dagger from the bones of a warrior, Dominy said, capturing the symbolic power and strength of that person.
Dominy determined the scene: "These are used for hand-to-hand combat only," he said. "They try to puncture and twist each other at the same time."
The anthropologist wanted to know how the New Guineans accomplished this violent action without destroying their valuable weapons. Dominy took 10 of the daggers, five cassowaries and five human bone weapons, to the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Hospital. Dominy and his colleagues sent the items through a CT scanner that showed a pattern – the avian daggers were flatter and straighter than the human ones.
The scientists also acquired a modern cassowary dagger, which was carved in the 1970s. The scientists drove the tip of the gun into urethane to simulate poking the dagger into a joint. Then, through mechanical tests, they bent and twisted the bone until it snapped.
This demonstration showed that cassowary bones are "extremely dense," Dominy said. The giant birds have no pneumatic bones – that is, they are not filled with air sacs like the bones of most flying birds. In fact, the cadaver bones are "similar to our human femur in terms of their mechanical properties".
Given the similarities between bird and human bone, scientists used the casuistry data on 3-D computer models of human weapons. In the simulations, the human daggers proved to be much stronger than the cassowary versions.
These findings indicate that the structure of a human dagger, carved to preserve the natural curvature of the bone, explains its superior strength. "When men make the dagger out of a human femur, they retain a lot of the cross-sectional curvature," Dominy said.
Dominy was not quite sure why the Cassowary bones were weaker in construction, but he suspected the flatness of the Cassowary dagger might have favored comfort over strength. The human daggers, on the other hand, were shaped in proportion to their value to last a long time.
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