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The Very Oldest Beads

This is a hard one. It wasn't long ago that one could say the earliest beads were products of the first modern humans, Cro-Magnon Man, European residents of the Late Old Stone Age. Its beginning is dated to 38,000 years or so ago. These early beads were made of tooth (including ivory), bone and shell. There were also a few of fossils and soft stones, most notably jet.

It was comfortable to think that the dawn of modern humanity was also the dawn of art and marked with increasingly sophisticated beadmaking skills. (For the earliest beads in America see this gallery.) That has to be seriously questioned now.

There were always problems with this picture, so popular with Euro-American scholars. For one thing, there were reports of earlier beads, though few people paid attention to them. For another, there were early beads all the way in Australia, made mostly from kangaroo bone.

The dawn of modern human, Homo sapiens sapiens, has now been pushed back to 100,000 years or so in East Africa and a little later in the Levant, along the eastern Mediterranean. Eastern Africa is where the earliest confirmed beads are found, made of ostrich eggshell.

Beads may go back even farther. There are drilled teeth and other objects found at Repolusthöhle, Austria, that may be as much as 300,000 years old! They hold the current record, but we still have a lot to learn about them and other early claims. The subject interests me greatly, and I'll have more about it as it develops.

The quest for the earliest beads is a component of a critical debate in modern archaeology and anthropology about the emergence of the human mind and its functioning. When did people begin to decorate themselves or other things? What does that mean about the development of the brain? When, indeed, did people learn to talk? How did that affect brain development? What does it mean to say we are "human," and how close were our predecessors to us in mental skills? Stay tuned.

For the latest debate on this subject, you might want to look up (sorry you cannot yet down-load it from us): Robert G. Bednarik "Concept-Mediated Marking in the Lower Paleolithic," published in 1995 in Current Anthropology [vol. 36, no. 4, pp. 605-34]. Current Anthropology is a wonderful journal. It accepts papers on major subjects and sends copies to experts in the field. Then it publishes the papers and the comments received by the readers along with a reply by the author. It is a great way to share ideas.


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