Paleolithic Jewelry: Still Eye-catching After 50,000 Years

Paleolithic Jewelry: Still Eye-catching After 50,000 Years

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By Tamara Zubchuk | The Siberian Times

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 fascinating collection of jewelry 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 kilometers away in South Africa.

Beads found inside Denisova Cave in the Altai mountains.

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 jewelry 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.

The Denisova Cave. Pictures: Vera SalnitskayaThe Denisova Cave. Pictures: Vera SalnitskayaThe Denisova Cave. Pictures: Vera Salnitskaya

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.'

Denisova Cave marked on the world map.

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.'

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