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Paleolithic jewellery: still eye-catching after 50,000 years

By Tamara Zubchuk
31 October 2016

Beads made from ostrich eggs buried in the Siberian cave around 2,000 generations ago reveal amazing artistic (and drilling) skills of our long-ago ancestors.

The beads are between 45,000 and 50,000 years old in the Upper Paleolithic era. Picture: Maksim Kozlikin

A fascinating collection of jewellery made of ostrich eggshells is being assembled by archeologists working in the world famous Denisova cave in Altai region. Ostriches in Siberia? 50,000 years ago?

Yes, it seems so. Or, at least, their eggshells made it here somehow.

In a month that has seen disclosures of the fossil of a tropical parrot in Siberia from at least five million years ago in the Miocene era, this elegant Paleolithic chic shows that our deep history (some 2,000 generations ago, give or take) contains many unexpected surprises. 

Pictured here are finds from a collection of beads in the Denisova cave, perfectly drilled, and archeologists say they have now found one more close by, with full details to be revealed soon in a scientific journal. They are in no doubt that the beads are between 45,000 and 50,000 years old in the Upper Paleolithic era, making them older than strikingly similar finds 11,500 kilometres away in South Africa. 

Paleolithic jewellery: still eye-catching after 50,000 years


Paleolithic jewellery: still eye-catching after 50,000 years


Paleolithic jewellery: still eye-catching after 50,000 years
Beads found inside Denisova Cave in the Altai mountains. Pictures: Maksim Kozlikin


Maksim Kozlikin, researcher at the Institute of Archeology and Ethnography, Novosibirsk, said of the Siberian ostrich egg beads: 'This is no ordinary find. Our team got quite excited when we found the bead.

'This is an amazing piece of work. The ostrich egg shell is quite robust material, but the holes in the beads must have been made with a fine stone drill. 

'For that time, we consider this to be an exquisite jewellery work of a very talented artist.'

The skills and techniques used some 45,000 to 50,000 years ago are remarkable and more akin to the Neolithic era, dozens of millennia later. 

He believes the beads may have been sewn into clothing - or formed part of a bracelet or necklace. 

Paleolithic jewellery: still eye-catching after 50,000 years


Paleolithic jewellery: still eye-catching after 50,000 years


Paleolithic jewellery: still eye-catching after 50,000 years
The Denisova Cave. Pictures: Vera Salnitskaya


The latest discovery 'is one centimetre in diameter, with a hole inside that is slightly wider than a millimetre,' he said.

Yet he admits: 'As of now, there is much more that we do not know about these beads than we do know. For example, we do not know where the beads were made. 

'One version is that the egg shells could have been exported from Trans-Baikal or Mongolia with the beads manufactured here. 

'Another possibility is that the beads were purchased elsewhere and delivered to the Altai Mountains perhaps in an exchange. 

'Whichever way we look at it, it shows that the people populating the Denisova Cave at the time were advanced in technologies and had very well-established contacts with the outside world.' 

Paleolithic jewellery: still eye-catching after 50,000 years
Denisova Cave marked on the world map. Picture: The Siberian Times


Today ostriches are an exotic import into a couple of areas in Siberia, but were they endemic 50,000 years ago, or were they brought from afar?

Kozlikin acknowledged there are far more questions than answers.

'We don't know if they (prehistoric people) decorated elements of men, or women, or children or their clothing with these beads,' he said. 'We do not know where the beads were sewn on the clothing, if they were. Did they only decorate wealthy members of society? Were they a sign of a special religious status, or did they signify that the person had more authority than the others? 

'How did the beads, or the material for them get to Siberia? How much did they cost? 

'What we do know for sure is that the beads were found in the Denisova Cave's 'lucky' eleventh layer, the same one where we found the world's oldest bracelet made from rare dark green stone. All finds from that layer have been dated as being 45,000 to 50,000 years old.

'We had three other beads found in 2005, 2006 and 2008. All the beads were discovered lying within six metres in the excavation in the eastern gallery of the cave. 

'We cannot say if they all belonged to one person, but visually these beads look identical.' 

Paleolithic jewellery: still eye-catching after 50,000 years
Ostich eggshell beads from Border Cave in South Africa, dated 44,856-41,010. Picture: Lucinda Backwell 


Yet they also appear similar to ostrich egg beads found in an area called Border Cave in South Africa that have been dated up to 44,000 years old. The site is in the foothills of the Lebombo Mountains in KwaZulu-Natal.

Dr Lucinda Backwell, senior researcher in the palaeo-anthropology department at Wits University, has previously highlighted how this African proto-civilisation 'adorned themselves with ostrich egg and marine shell beads'.

The Siberian beads is the latest discovery from the Denisova Cave which is possibly the finest natural repository of sequential early human history so far discovered anywhere on the planet. 

The cave was occupied by Homo sapiens along with now exyinct early humans - Neanderthals and Denisovans - for at least 288,000 years, and excavations have been underway here for three decades, with the prospect of many exciting finds to come in future. 

Paleolithic jewellery: still eye-catching after 50,000 years


Paleolithic jewellery: still eye-catching after 50,000 years


Paleolithic jewellery: still eye-catching after 50,000 years
Archeologists working inside the eastern gallery of the Denisova Cave. Pictures: The Siberian Times 


In August we revealed the discovery of the world's oldest needle in the cave - still useable after 50,000 years.

Crafted from the bone of an ancient bird, it was made not by Homo sapiens or even Neanderthals, but by Denisovans. 

Professor Mikhail Shunkov, head of the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography in Novosibirsk, said: 'It is the most unique find of this season, which can even be called sensational. It is a needle made of bone. 

'As of today it is the most ancient needle in the word. It is about 50,000 years old.'

Denisova Cave, pictures by Vera Salnitskaya

Paleolithic jewellery: still eye-catching after 50,000 years


Paleolithic jewellery: still eye-catching after 50,000 years


Paleolithic jewellery: still eye-catching after 50,000 years

Comments (5)

What is curious is you show young students excavating one of the most important caves? I hardly think that could be accurate. The age of the beads is definitely questionable. I would like to see the bracelet as i have researched same in ancient Egypt. If this age if accurate it is quite remarkable.
Thank you.
Prof. J. Summers, USA
27/11/2016 03:19
0
0
It is also possible, I guess, that these were family heirlooms. Taken out of Africa by the first group of migrants that eventually settled in Siberia and passed down to following generations.
Ingrid Brouwer, Ameland
02/11/2016 14:55
4
9
Ho hum. Ostrich eggshell beads have been recovered from southern Siberia and Mongolia before, and the oldest known in the world are from the Acheulian of Libya, 200,000 years old. And we know all that can be known about their manufacture. Bednarik, R. G. 1997. The role of Pleistocene beads in documenting hominid cognition. Rock Art Research 14(1): 27-41.
1997. About ostrich eggshell beads. Acta Archaeologica 68: 153-161.
http://www.mdpi.com/2076-0752/2/1/6
http://www.mdpi.com/2076-0752/2/2/46
Robert G. Bednarik, Melbourne, Australia
02/11/2016 05:25
22
16
Great work! Please keep posting the interesting finds and photos.
Yvonne, Seattle
02/11/2016 01:50
14
0
The work you are doing is fascinating. I loved all the pictures. Thankyou
jesse grasse, Hawaii
02/11/2016 00:00
13
0
1

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