Jewelry as a sign of human consciousness

Hi All,

In case you hadn’t noticed over the past several years earlier and
earlier finds of the earliest human worked artifacts have been made.
The oldest surviving items made by humans are beads (jewelry). They
have been dated, last year 40,000, then 70,000 and now over 90,000
years old. Archeologists are suggesting that the act of self
adornment, and making jewelry is not mere evidence of consciousness
in humans, but was actually a major CAUSE of consciousness.

An article addressing this is at:

Study reveals 'oldest jewellery’
By Paul Rincon
Science reporter, BBC News

The earliest known pieces of jewellery made by modern humans
have been identified by scientists.

The three shell beads are between 90,000 and 100,000 years
old, according to an international research team.

Two of the ancient beads come from Skhul Cave on the slopes of
Mount Carmel in Israel. The other comes from the site of Oued
Djebbana in Algeria.

The finds, which pre-date other ancient examples by 25,000
years, are described in the US journal Science.

The pea-sized items all have similar holes which would have
allowed them to be strung together into a necklace or
bracelet, the researchers believe.

All three shells come from the same genus of marine mollusc
known as Nassarius; they were probably selected for their size
and deliberately perforated with a sharp flint tool.

They represent a remarkable early expression of modern
behaviour in the archaeological record, experts say.

“The interesting thing about necklaces and this kind of
behaviour is that it is symbolic. When we wear items like
this, we are sending a message,” said co-author Professor
Chris Stringer of London’s Natural History Museum.

“The message may be that we are powerful, or wealthy, or sexy,
that we’re part of a particular group, or to ward off evil.
They’re not just decorative; we think they had a social

Remote locations

Chemical and elemental analysis of sediments stuck to one of
the shells from Skhul showed that it came from ground layers
dated to 100,000 years ago.

The style of tools at Oued Djebbana suggests the single
specimen from this open-air site might be up to 90,000 years

The authors’ case for the shells having been used as beads is
based on the remote location of the sites where they were
found and the nature of the perforations in them.

“The fact they are there at all means they were transported by
people to [Skhul] cave; these are seashells and the sea was
never that close to the cave,” Professor Stringer told BBC
Radio 4’s Leading Edge programme. Similarly, Oued Djebbana is
located about 200km (120 miles) from the Mediterranean Sea.

“We’re confident these were artificially made. The position of
the holes are exactly where people drill shells like this when
they are making necklaces.”

In addition, he added, the probability of finding two shells
with holes in this position is at least one in a thousand. The
objects provide a clear example of the complex, symbolic
behaviour that would appear to set our species apart from the
animal world.

Modern thinking

Up until recently, examples of modern behaviour before 50,000
years ago had eluded researchers, even though humans with
modern-looking anatomy are known in the fossil record from
about 195,000 years ago onward.

This had led some researchers to propose that modern anatomy
and modern behaviour did not evolve in tandem.

Instead, they argued, a fortuitous mutation in the human brain
may have triggered an explosion in human creativity 50,000
years ago, leading to a sudden appearance of personal
ornaments, skilfully-crafted art, novel tools and weapons.

The discovery of 75,000-year-old Nassarius shell beads at
Blombos Cave in South Africa challenged this idea. These beads
even bore traces of red ochre, used as a pigment. Now the
dates for beads from Skhul and Oued Djebbana further weaken
the “cultural explosion” scenario, says Stringer.

Professor Alison Brooks, an expert in African archaeology at
George Washington University, US, said the study was “very
well researched”.

“I am not surprised because I have long thought that the wide
variety of bead types that we see during the Upper
Palaeolithic in Europe had to have an antecedent. And this
tradition is a very logical antecedent,” she told the BBC News

“It supports my thought that there are no great revolutions in
the evolution of modern human behaviour - it is a gradual

Cooking up

But the apparent antiquity of symbolic behaviour raises
questions about the time it took for modern humans to expand
into the rest of the world.

“There was a long period where modern humans survived in the
African world and into part of the Near East, but never
expanded into western Europe,” Professor Ofer Bar-Yosef of
Harvard University, US, told the BBC News website.

"I think you have a ‘cooking’ or ‘brewing’ period. Otherwise
you have to explain, for example, why the industrial
revolution in England took place around 1850 and rapidly
expanded across the channel to Europe and then across the
Atlantic to America.

“In fact, we know from historical records that the development
of scientific methods and the development of machinery took
about 200 years before there was a ‘breakout’.”

The marine shells from Skhul are held by the Natural History
Museum in London, while the shell bead from Oued Djebbana is
held by the Museum of Man in Paris.

Charles Lewton-Brain

The oldest surviving items made by humans are beads (jewelry). 

Thanks for the article, Charles. It is nice to get more support for
what I tell my customers. Women are always saying, “It’s not like I
need more earrings…” as they buy them. I tell them, “Jewelry is
not about need. It’s about being human.” Then I go on to point out
that one of the earliest (I guess I can say the earliest) signs of
being human is the use of personal adornment, and that, though there
animals that use tools, to some degree, only humans wear jewelry–
even those that don’t wear clothes.

So, thanks for the support!

Dear Charles,

Thank you for this fascinating post!

I referred to the 75,000 year old shell beads from the Blombos caves
in my masters thesis as evidence that it is in the genome of the
humanoid species to express identity through ornamentation. Now to
have evidence that pushes the action of ornamentation within early
human development even farther back into pre-history is very

Nanz Aalund
Associate Editor / Art Jewelry magazine
21027 Crossroads Circle / Waukesha WI 53187-1612
262.796.8776 ext.228

Hi Charles,

Thank you for posting the BBC article:

Very inspiring.

Donna Hiebert Design