Enigma 137: circle-dot bones

I have these bone beads. When I hold them, the bones make a sensuous clacking sound. Against a strong light, they are translucent. Each is inscribed with lines and circle-dot motifs, front and back. They remind me of some kind of ancient dominoes, but are more likely shamanic — meant for divination or for healing.


In 1995, they were sold to me as “Naga,” from the tribe of headhunters in the far northeast of India, near Burma. I have a book. I researched. It did not fit the Naga style. (Headhunters don’t get enough credit for their fine craftsmanship.)

Fast forward. I posted photos on the Ethnic Jewels community at Facebook. Members jumped in to help. Maybe from the Dinka tribe in South Sudan? No, definitely “medicine sticks” from the Omo River Valley of Ethiopia.

Then someone proclaimed it to be a complete fakeroo — a “non-existing,” indeterminate style, no “age” on the bones, everything artificially colored.

Well… poop. What if that is true?

My question then expands to who made it and what was the purpose beyond crafty “doodling”? Can it be a “fake” if it isn’t imitating anything specific? SOMEONE shaped bone into these graduated shapes and carefully drilled holes through each “head.” SOMEONE inscribed lines and skillfully used a couple of different forked drill bits to make the circle-dots.

Circle-dot patterns can be found on artifacts the world over — from Viking combs, to pre-Hispanic bone flutes, to 10th-century Islamic spindle whorls, and, yes, to Ethiopian medicine sticks. The old glass trade beads can be found equally strewn across history. The dyed string? I shrug. Everything gets restrung.

The day ends with a larger mystery than it started with. My research will continue.

Wine poured.

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