‘Formidable, Fierce-Looking And Beautiful’: Human Bone Daggers Were Prized Weapons Among New Guinean Warriors

Blades made from human thigh bones were far superior to cassowary daggers, study finds.

Man of the Huli tribe in Tari area of Papua New Guinea, in traditional clothes and face paint on October 30, 2013.
Amy Nichole Harris / Shutterstock

Blades made from human thigh bones were far superior to cassowary daggers, study finds.

Some people just have the best job. Anthropologists at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire got to play around with awesome daggers as part of a new study they’ve just published in the journal Royal Society Open Science.

The team was researching which weapons were more valued by the tribes of New Guinea a hundred years ago and found out that, as far as close-combat goes, there was nothing more desirable than a bone dagger, LiveScience reports.

The daggers that New Guinean warriors used in battle were typically made from the thigh bones of cassowaries — very large flightless birds native to the area, notes Newsweek. But what all warriors treasured the most was a blade carved from a human femur.

These imposing weapons were “formidable, fierce-looking and beautiful,” states lead study author Nathaniel Dominy, who was fascinated by the collection of 10 human bone daggers he discovered at the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College.

These daggers, now considered a work of art, had an equally high aesthetic value for the warriors who used to wear them. Dominy’s investigation uncovered that the New Guinean warriors would strap these stunning blades to their biceps and wear them for a double reason: to inspire terror on the battleground and to show their social status in the community.

And nothing was as prized as daggers fashioned from the bones of highly respected tribesmen. These distinguished weapons “carried greater social prestige,” the anthropologists explained and were imbued with a special symbolism.

“In addition, bone itself was the embodiment of strength, both mechanically and symbolically with powers enmeshed in the supernatural world,” the team wrote in their paper.

Apart from their extraordinary symbolism, the human bone daggers made quite an impression because they were so artfully made. Ornate with elaborate carvings, these blades were immensely coveted possessions, the team reveals in the study.

“The bone daggers of New Guinea were potent objects of artistic expression. They were incised with elaborate designs, both abstract and representational, and worn as conspicuous personal adornments.”

But these almost magical daggers were as lethal as they were beautiful. New Guinean warriors would use these formidable weapons “to kill outright or finish off victims wounded with arrows or spears, by stabbing them in the neck,” the study uncovered.

And, as any self-respecting anthropologist would do, the team decided to test the power of the daggers to see if they really measured up to their fearsome reputation.

To do so, they made CT scans of the ten 12-inch human bone blades he found at the museum and used computer simulations to gauge their stabbing capabilities. Then, according to Newsweek, they purchased a modern cassowary dagger from the 1970s and essentially went to town with it, testing the weapon mechanically by stabbing it through urethane and bending it until it broke.

A comparison of the two types of bone daggers revealed that the blades made from human femurs were a lot stronger and more resistant. The tests showed that human bone daggers retain the natural curvature of the femur, which gives them more mechanical strength and allows them to withstand about 31 percent more force than the cassowary daggers, details Science Magazine.

This suggests that human bone daggers were crafted to last and were specially made to be strong and durable, perhaps to preserve their symbolic importance, the media outlet concludes.