New Guinea bone daggers were engineered to preserve social prestige

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Abstract

Bone daggers were once widespread in New Guinea. Their purpose was both symbolic and utilitarian; they functioned as objects of artistic expression with the primary function of stabbing and killing people at close quarters. Most daggers were shaped from the tibiotarsus of cassowaries, but daggers shaped from the femora of respected men carried greater social prestige. The greater cross-sectional curvature of human bone daggers indicates superior strength, but the material properties of cassowary bone are unknown. It is, therefore, uncertain whether the macrostructure of human bone daggers exists to compensate for inferior material properties of human femora or to preserve the symbolic value of a prestigious object. To explore this question, we used computed tomography to examine the structural mechanics of 11 bone daggers, 10 of which are museum-accessioned objects of art. We found that 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. Taken together, our findings suggest that human bone daggers were engineered to preserve symbolic capital, an outcome that agrees well with the predictions of signalling theory.

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Dominy, N. J., Mills, S. T., Yakacki, C. M., Roscoe, P. B., & Carpenter, R. D. (2018). New Guinea bone daggers were engineered to preserve social prestige. Royal Society Open Science, 5(4). https://doi.org/10.1098/rsos.172067

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