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Prehistoric Jewelry: Stone Age Ornaments

Venus of Hohle Fels Carved from Mammoth Tusk
Venus of Hohle Fels Carved from Mammoth Tusk

Since the discovery of ancient artifacts such as the Sumerian tombs found at Ur, the golden treasure of Nimrud, the Scythian burial mounds and the tomb of King Tutankhamun, we have been aware of the ancients' fondness for decorative gemstone jewelry. Yet, human history goes back further than this. If we dig deeper, we are able to find that our prehistoric ancestors also made and wore jewelry, though it was made of stone, bone, shell and other materials that were available before metal working developed. Let's take a look at some of the archaeological finds that have been made.

In 1995, a prehistoric obsidian bracelet was discovered in Asikli Höyük in Turkey from the 8th millennium BC. The workmanship of the bracelet is a lot more sophisticated than was previously thought possible at such a time. It is symmetrical and expertly polished with a central circular ridge. An even older green stone bracelet (chlorite) was later discovered in Siberia in 2008. It is said to be up to 40,000 years old, so is thought to be the oldest stone bracelet in the world. It is thought to be of Denisovan origin.

Other remains found in Europe reveal that European Homo sapiens wore beads made from mammoth bone and used ivory ornaments. The Venus of Hohle Fels (see, top image) is a voluptuous female figurine carved from a piece of mammoth tusk which could have been used as an amulet and worn as a pendant. Instead of having a head, the carving has a loop at the top. It was found in Germany in 2008 and is believed to be about 40,000 years old. Around the same time in prehistory, early Africans at Twilight Cave in Kenya made beads from ostrich eggshell. The beads are also at least 40,000 years old.

Nassarius shell beads
Nassarius shell beads

These prehistoric ornaments are incredibly old, but jewelry components dating back even earlier than this are Nassarius shell beads. The shells come from a species of marine mollusk and were found in Skhul Cave in Israel. Since the shells had been perforated, it is thought that they were used as early beads. It could also be seen that some surfaces had rubbed together and worn flatter over time, which further indicates that they were strung together. Similar beads were also found in Blombos Cave in South Africa and in Algeria. However, the African beads were not quite as old as the ones from Israel.

Even older prehistoric jewelry exists. A set of white-tailed eagle talons that were discovered in Croatia are around 130,000 years old and are thought to have been polished, strung onto a bracelet or necklace and worn as jewelry pendants. Cuts and notches on the eagle talons give us an indication of how they were used by their Neanderthal owners.

After learning a little about prehistoric ornaments, we can see that our ancestors were not as simple as we previously thought and often depict them to be. In fact, sophisticated humans existed, complete with jewelry designers, before the Bronze Age. While we are able to glimpse prehistoric jewelry, there are still many questions about how and why it was used. Perhaps future discoveries will allow us to learn more about some of the intriguing artifacts above. Our Stone-Aged ancestors may not have invented the wheel, but they certainly started the ball rolling.

  • First Published: July-29-2015
  • Last Updated: July-29-2015
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