According to a new study published in the journal PLoS ONE, turtles served as more than tasty treats for Native American tribes throughout North America; in fact, turtle shells were used as rattles and other musical instruments.
“Music is an important part of many cultures in ways we may not realize,” said Dr. Tanya Peres, a researcher in the Department of Anthropology at Florida State University.
“Musical instruments have a deep ancient history in human society and are encoded with meanings beyond their sound making capabilities.”
Dr. Peres and her colleague, Andrew Gillreath-Brown, a doctoral candidate at Washington State University, examined the use of turtle shells as percussion instruments in the southeastern United States.
They identified and analyzed several partial shells of the Eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina) from middle Tennessee archaeological sites that they believe were used as rattles.
In the past, turtle shells found at archaeological sites were often dismissed as food remains.
“Historic indigenous groups are known to have, and still do into the present-day, make and use turtle shell rattles in the region,” the researchers said.
“Ultimately, we determined that ‘food refuse’ should not be the default interpretation of fragmentary box turtle remains, and instead the taphonomic history and contextual associations must be considered in full.”
Turtles play an important role in many indigenous populations, but have not been explored in great detail by researchers. Many indigenous groups believe that the world was formed upon a turtle’s back.
“This symbology and belief is imbued into the turtle shell rattles, which are meant to keep rhythm and thereby interjects powerful symbology and spiritual energy into dances and ceremonies,” Gillreath-Brown noted.
The meaning and importance of rattles likely differs depending on the region. But, their presence in all these areas demonstrates that turtle shells were important to keeping rhythm in ceremonies across prehistoric North America.
“This study expands our knowledge of ancient music in North America and prompts re-analysis of curated turtle remains in museums for rattle-related modifications,” the scientists said.
A. Gillreath-Brown & T.M. Peres. 2018. An experimental study of turtle shell rattle production and the implications for archaeofaunal assemblages. PLoS ONE 13 (8): e0201472; doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0201472
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