Human bones make the best bone daggers, researchers studying weapons prized by the people of New Guinea have discovered.
Using imaging, computer simulations and good-old-fashioned stabbing tests on daggers made from bird and human bones, researchers found that human thigh bones produced the very best blades. Their results were published in the journal Royal Society Open Science.
Nathaniel J Dominy, an anthropologist at Dartmouth College and first author of the study, described New Guinea bone daggers to the Washington Post as, “formidable, fierce-looking and beautiful.” Engineered for both function and beauty, the fearsome weapons are adorned with intricate carvings.
So much more than a blade, they were prized as markers of social capital. Worn as “conspicuous personal adornments,” the daggers were "exemplars par excellence of male fighting abilities, and a highly desirable status symbol among men,” the authors wrote.
The weapons were historically used in hand-to-hand combat. German anthropologist Leonhard Schultze-Jena described the weapons’ fierce function in grizzly detail back in 1914, writing: “The dagger serves not only to stab into the main arteries but at the same time as a lever with which one twists the punctured neck of the enemy in order to tear the throat and, with sufficient power, break the neck.”
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The researchers analysed daggers made from human thigh bones and the bones of the cassowary, a flightless bird native to New Guinea. Apart from dwarf cassowaries, these birds are very large, with one species—the southern cassowary—out-sized only by the emu and the ostrich. Although the birds have a reputation for aggression against humans, certain New Guinea Highlands societies have historically captured, raised and gifted the creatures.
In order to preserve the highly-valued and relatively rare human daggers, the team imaged them with a CT scanner and simulated their stabbing capabilities. The team scanned 10 human bone daggers and acquired a modern cassowary dagger from the 1970s. They tested the cassowary dagger mechanically—stabbing it through urethane and bending it until it broke.
The bones of most flying birds are essentially hollow: filled with a web of air sacs. The cassowary bones used in daggers, however, are denser, like human bone. This similarity allowed the scientists to use their cassowary stabbing practise data in computer simulations of the scanned human bone daggers.
Given the pretty striking differences between the bodies of humans and cassowaries, it makes sense that the shape of their bones should be different as well. Daggers made from human bones had greater curvature than than the cassowary daggers, and appeared less likely to bend. The human daggers preserved the natural curve of the femur.
Human bones daggers, the authors wrote, had been better engineered for the task of stabbing. The flatter cassowary daggers were built a little flimsier, possibly reflecting a lower social value. The diamante studs to the human bone’s diamond ring, perhaps.
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