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The Oldest Known Jewelry in the World

Whenever you wear jewelry, whether it is a necklace, a ring, or a pair of earrings, you are following in the footsteps of a tradition that is thousands of years old. Humans have been wearing jewelry since the dawn of time, and some of the oldest known pieces of jewelry can be traced back as far as 100,000 B.C.E. But what type of jewelry did ancient humans wear and why did they wear it?

The oldest known jewelry that has been found so far usually consists of beads. The oldest beads have been found in Israel and are approximately 100,000 to 135,000 years old. They are made of seashells, which have little holes so the beads could be strung together. Similar seashell beads have been found in Algeria: what is special about these beads is that they were found nearly 100 miles from the sea. This distance suggests that the beads were traded, and therefore the beads must have held significant value for these early humans.

The 3,000-year-old gold bead. Image credit: Temple Mount Sifting Project.

Not only prehistoric homo sapiens were making jewelry: jewelry from other ancient human species has also been found. In a Neanderthal cave in Croatia, eight eagle talons from 130,000 years ago have been found. These talons would have been strung together in a necklace or bracelet. Given how hard it would be to acquire these talons, it is likely that this jewelry would have had great significance. This shows that Neanderthals likely had symbolic practices, even before modern humans showed up in Europe!

Neandertal Jewelry (from PLoS)

The Denisovans, an extinct human species different from Neanderthals and homo sapiens, also wore jewelry. In a Siberian cave, a bracelet made of chlorite from 40,000 years ago has been discovered. This bracelet is incredibly sophisticated in how it is made, and the maker would have needed some drill-like tool to make the hole in the bracelet. The chlorite glows vibrant green when the sun shines on it. The craftsmanship and the fragility of the bracelet likely mean that it would only have been worn for special occasions or ceremonies.

chlorite gemstone

The discoveries in Israel and Algeria specifically are incredibly important for our understanding of human history. Humans have been anatomically modern for 160,000 years. Back then, they were already making stone tools and weapons. But it is only many thousands of years later when humans started to make art, jewelry, and probably also started speaking languages, that we consider them to be culturally and behaviorally modern. For a long time, archeologists thought this shift, called the 'human revolution', happened around 40,000 years ago. But the fact that humans were making jewelry 135,000 years ago shows us that they were thinking symbolically and had a culture much earlier!

brown lampwork earrings

Prehistoric jewelry likely had multiple different functions. It could be used simply to decorate the body, but the presence of jewelry also suggests a complex social system. Jewelry could be given as a gift, used to express identity or signify belonging to a group. In a way, wearing jewelry is a way of sending a message to other people, now as much as in prehistoric times: think for instance of engagement rings, Christian cross-necklaces, or friendship bracelets. Whether we use it as a status symbol, a link with the spiritual, a way to feel connected to our loved ones, or simply because we like the way it looks; the existence of ancient jewelry shows us how wearing jewelry is deeply human.

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