Why warriors in New Guinea used human bones as formidable daggers

Story highlights

  • Warriors in New Guinea used daggers made from human thigh bones
  • They sourced bones from the skeletons of their ancestors
  • These bone daggers were believed to possess symbolic power

(CNN)In New Guinea, bands of brave warriors once used daggers crafted from bone to finish off their enemies in hand-to-hand combat.

They expropriated bones from two very different sources -- one was the thigh bones of fierce and flightless birds called cassowaries, and the other, the bones of their ancestors.
A recent study published in Royal Society Open Science gives an insight into the reverence with which they held the daggers made from human bones -- showing how they engineered them to better protect these weapons in combat.
    Warriors typically sourced human thigh bones from the skeletons of their fathers who had proven themselves in battle, or other men of status in the community, explained cultural anthropologist Paul Roscoe, one of the authors of the report.
    "It was almost like a spiritual aura, like your father was watching over you, and you were carrying him into battle with you," said Roscoe.
    Anthropologist Albert Buell Lewis took photos a and b when visiting northern New Guinea in September 1909. Photos c and d show a cassowary bone dagger attached to the arm of an Asmat man.
    In the Sepik region of New Guinea, up until as recently as the 1970s, men would arm themselves with bone daggers in large raids or small-scale ambushes of neighboring groups, he explained.
    The attack would start at a distance with spears and arrows, and bone daggers would be used to stab opponents in the neck in hand-to-hand fighting.
    While bone daggers primarily functioned as weapons, they were also prized ceremonial ornaments conspicuously worn on the bicep.
    Human bone daggers often had elaborate designs and patterns incised on the daggers to project a feeling of "power and menace" and instill fear, added Roscoe.