The term “people” gets more inclusive as we dive back in time. Today we think of people as hominids like us, but homo-sapiens-sapiens are not the only people in this history. Neanderthals and Denisovans are jewelry craftspeople too. When, then do we stop calling our ancestors “people?” What about ancestors as far back as homo-erectus; are they “people” too?
When looking for the first evidence of jewelry-wearing “people” we have a lot of history to leaf through. Get your popcorn and let’s go.
We have evidence of large-scale metallurgy dating back to the Hittite Empire sometime around 1200 BCE in the modern-day country of Türkiye (previously Turkey). Metallurgy is the process by which craftspeople make metal objects, and most specifically create alloys to enhance the characteristics of desirable metals, like platinum, gold, silver, tin, and steel.
Numerous pieces of jewelry are made of alloys. Most gold and silver necklaces and rings available today are made of alloys. Before alloying became common practice, impurities were burned off of ore, which is called slag, to produce unalloyed jewelry.
It was at the dawn of metallurgy, just over 3,200 years ago, that jewelry started to get popular with all members of society. Before we knew how to produce alloys, fine metal jewelry was too soft to be worn by anyone who did any kind of work.
The ancient Egyptians hold the current record for the oldest pieces of finely crafted alloy-metal jewelry. A young woman was buried with three gold and soapstone rings and a gold necklace. But this is not the beginning of jewelry.
Let’s venture further back in time before metallurgy was invented. About 5000 years ago we find jade amulets in northern China, matching gold and red jasper earrings and pendant necklace in ancient Sumer, and the Pharaohs were rocking the gold bangles made by chipping gold into shape in the same way that stone age people (and their many homo-species ancestors) flint knapped stone tools.
At this point in history, we delve into the darkness before writing was invented. There is very little indisputable evidence of anything from the eons that preceded the written word. It is all debatable before written records, which came onto the scene about 5400 years ago.
There is ample evidence of jewelry wearing in the pre-literate societies that covered the earth, but finding consensus about the purpose of the adornments that people (and proto-people) decorated themselves with is another matter entirely. We will not be parsing theories, but instead, we will examine the evidence that we have so far.
Let’s talk about beads baby. Today, beads are generally produced by drilling a hole in a cylinder or sphere. In ancient times, people made beads without drills or drilling. There was a time when no one had yet discovered the spinning action that constitutes drilling.
Instead, ancient peoples used other methods. If the bead material was thin, the maker could crack a hole with a little pressure from a sharp tool. Thicker materials could be made into beads by digging holes in one side, then flipping the item over and digging on the other side to create a tunnel through the object, turning it into a bead.
Some 19,000 to 25,000 years ago a Siberian woman wore an elk tooth as a single bead pendant. Her DNA was found on the pendant and tested showing that her descendants still live in the area.
40,000 years ago Denisovians in the Altai Mountains were carving bracelets and rings of stone and marble.
50,000 years ago Neanderthals in Southern Spain were painting, piercing, and wearing seashell jewelry with their glitter makeup.
Some 142,000 years ago a Middle Stone Age craftsperson in Africa made sea snail shell beads. The sea snail beads are the oldest evidence of specific jewelry adornment at this time.
As recently as 236,000 years ago, Homo-sapiens shared their territories with Homo-naledi who used fire to cook, for lighting and had burial rituals for their dead. Their relationships were complex with many generations living together in at least one South African cave system.
Did they wear jewelry too?
We like to think so but we’ll have to wait for the proof.
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