I Like Ancient People
April 16, 2004 7:40 AM   Subscribe

Oldest Jewelry Discovered In African Cave At least 75,000 years old, the find suggests that early humans had a complex sense of symbolism.
posted by mcgraw (8 comments total)
From the New Scientist Article:
"They must have had a way of describing the symbolic message that the beads represent. If I were Catholic and you were not, and I wanted to explain to you how rosary beads are used to count prayers, it would be very hard to do that with sign language, or a grunt and a groan - you wouldn't get the message at all."
posted by mcgraw at 7:43 AM on April 16, 2004

Expect bling jokes soon.
posted by 111 at 7:49 AM on April 16, 2004

It seems like the oldest stuff [note: really old article] always appears in South Africa for some reason.

Thanks for the info.
posted by sciurus at 8:17 AM on April 16, 2004

Well, actually, the OLDEST hominid stuff is from Chad (Sahelanthropus tchadensis) and Kenya (Orrorin tugenensis), dating to 6-7mya and 5-6 mya respectively. Australopithecines, such as those from Sterkfontein, are somewhat a dime a dozen nowadays. Not to downplay their significance, but they're really not telling us too much that we don't know already.

The Blombos stuff is interesting because it shows, as mcgraw wrote, early symbolism. One of the big debates right now is when fully modern behavior emerged, and whether or not Neanderthals had it, stole it, created it, etc. I think I remember that Blombos is associated with anatomically modern humans (not mentioned in the articles), so this doesn't get at the Neanderthal half of the question, but this does contradict the 40-50kya "Cultural Revolution" theory that some have argued for--a rapid origin of symbolism within a few short thousand years--and lends creedence to a more gradual "evolution" of symbolic behavior. Still, some of the other evidence used to argue for long-development symbolism is dubious at best (poor dating, mixed sediment layers), and I'd like to see the context and dating information for Blombos before we start jumping up and down and talking about paleoreligion.

[heads off to read the Nature article...]
posted by The Michael The at 8:51 AM on April 16, 2004

But is it symbolism or just a need to decorate?

I wonder if the desire to ornament oneself is innate? For example, I don't often wear jewelry...I usually even forget to wear my wedding ring...because it gets in my way when I'm working around the house or in the yard...and yet my 16 month old son will string things together, and then drape them around himself. I'm forever taking things away from him that he's wearing as a "necklace" because I fear that he'll strangle himself.

But, he's never really seen people wear ornaments, and yet he tries to create them and wear them. Which makes me wonder if even early man wanted to decorate themselves with those things they find around themselves...not necessarily because they are symbolic, but because they are pretty.
posted by dejah420 at 9:00 AM on April 16, 2004 [1 favorite]

Yes, dejah420, I agree with you that people inherently prefer ornamentation. It is interesting to consider whether this is meant to represent individualism in some ways, and also social status.

Your comments make me think of Queen Puabi, and her royal Sumerian gold headdress. The Sumerians and Egyptians went to great lengths to decorate themselves as far back as pre-dynastic eras prior to 3,500 BC. In those two examples, we have two hugely successful long-term early civilizations which supported great numbers of artists who created personal ornamentation objects for everyone, not just for nobility and the elite. (ok, maybe not "everyone" -- criminals, slaves and war prisoners).
posted by mcgraw at 9:13 AM on April 16, 2004 [1 favorite]

not necessarily because they are symbolic, but because they are pretty.

Yes, there does seem to be a general trend of behavior toward ornament, agreed. But what is meant by "symbolism" isn't necessarily "Oh, this bead means an Our Father and this bead means a Hail Mary" but abstract connections with the objects. When someone wears jewelry today, it's often for a reason: sentimental, romantic, religious, etc. All of which are symbolic in their representation. Sometimes people wear jewelry because it's pretty, but even then, the reason is to increase attractiveness of the self.

Also, comparisons between the present and the paleolithic are somewhat spurious because of the difference in economy. Now, jewelry is cheap (well, some of it at least). But then, ivory beads, for example, took tens or hundreds of hours each to produce. Multiply that by thousands, as have been found in some sites, and that makes a hell of a lot of time. So yeah, maybe people made them because they're pretty, but they'd better have some sort of value to warrant that kind of time investment. It's like saying people painted caves because they liked the art. Sure... but why would they trudge a mile through a labyrinthal cave to some isolated corner without any modern light sources, but rather primitive torches that, if they went out, would strand the painter in darkness and near-certain death? Well, maybe because they liked painting. But more likely because there was some deeper reason to do so.
posted by The Michael The at 10:31 AM on April 16, 2004 [1 favorite]

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