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Between 34,000 and 24,000 years ago, diverse European cultures from the Gravettian period utilized marine shells, teeth, beads, and other ornaments for personal adornment, shown here. Source: J. Baker, et al/Nature

Prehistoric Jewelry Unveils 9 Distinct Paleolithic European Cultures

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A fascinating new study has explored the cultural behavior of prehistoric humans in Europe from tens of thousands of years ago, and learnt that our ancestors adorned themselves with a diverse array of beads, reflecting various cultural practices and styles. Researchers meticulously analyzed these ancient artifacts and identified nine distinct cultural groups across the continent during the Gravettian period in Europe, spanning approximately 34,000 to 24,000 years ago.

Creating a New Data Set: Geospatial Analyses

These classifications are based on the geographical distribution of the beads and the unique characteristics of their styles. Researchers compiled a new dataset of personal ornaments worn by European hunter-gatherers from this time period, emphasizing their geographical distribution across Europe. They’ve employed a combination of multivariate and geospatial statistical analyses, as stated by the study published in Nature Human Behaviour.

The distinctiveness of these cultures was such that one could differentiate between them solely based on the embellishments adorning the bodies of their members, even in cases where individuals shared similar genetic backgrounds.

The researchers aimed to uncover patterns of ornament variability and cultural diversity within the Gravettian techno complex. Through this process, they aimed to understand the influence of geographical distance on cultural diversity among Gravettian populations, according to a press release.

The crafting skills of the Gravettians are evident in the wide variety of materials they utilized to create beads, including ivory, bones, teeth (from animals such as bears, horses, and rabbits), antlers, jet gemstones, shells, and amber. These beads likely served both as personal ornaments and cultural markers, reflecting the artistic and cultural traditions of the Gravettian people.

For their study, researchers examined 134 distinct types of adornments collected by archaeologists from 112 sites across Europe over the past century. This extensive dataset provided a comprehensive overview of the diverse range of beads used by the Gravettians. By inputting this information into a database and integrating it with data from previous scientific studies and literature, the researchers were able to identify and analyze the unique characteristics and distinctions between the bead types associated with different cultural groups.

Material used for Gravettian personal ornaments. Left) Types of teeth used as ornaments identified at occupation and burial sites attributed to the Gravettian. Right, Shaped ornaments and modified bones identified at occupation and burial sites attributed to the Gravettian. (J. Baker, et al/Nature)

Material used for Gravettian personal ornaments. Left) Types of teeth used as ornaments identified at occupation and burial sites attributed to the Gravettian. Right, Shaped ornaments and modified bones identified at occupation and burial sites attributed to the Gravettian. (J. Baker, et al/Nature)

"We started noticing differences as we were making the database," study lead author Jack Baker, a doctoral student of prehistory at the University of Bordeaux in France, told Live Science. "There's actually a big difference, especially between the west and the east."

Big Difference: Cultural Distinction Based on Ornament Use and Design in the Gravettian Era

Contrary to the notion that cultural variability could be solely explained by isolation-by-distance, the study identified nine distinct cultural entities across Europe based on the distribution and characteristics of personal ornaments. These cultural entities represent geographically discrete regions with unique patterns of ornament use and design, indicating a more complex cultural landscape than previously assumed.

This observation suggests that various factors beyond genetic heritage influenced the distinctiveness of these cultures, including the availability of materials, cultural exchanges among different groups, and individual social status within their respective communities. The study revealed that these differences were particularly pronounced in the context of burial sites, as opposed to the places where people lived.

According to Baker, "Cultural differences crystallize better around things like funerary rites." Practices related to burial and mortuary rituals played a significant role in delineating the cultural identities and social dynamics of Gravettian populations.

For instance, burials were a common cultural practice among Early and Middle Gravettian populations in Eastern Europe. However, as the Gravettian period progressed, there was a notable shift away from burying the deceased, indicating an evolution of social norms within Gravettian societies over time.

Artist’s reconstruction of the burial of a Young Prince found in Arene Candide cave, Liguria, Italy, wearing personal ornamentation during the Gravettian period. Source: (Public Domain)

Artist’s reconstruction of the burial of a Young Prince found in Arene Candide cave, Liguria, Italy, wearing personal ornamentation during the Gravettian period. Source: (Public Domain)

In comparing their findings with up-to-date palaeogenetic data, the researchers discovered both agreements and discrepancies. While some alignment between cultural and genetic data was observed, the cultural analysis revealed nuances and complexities not captured by genetic studies alone. Specifically, the presence of cultural entities in regions not yet sampled by genetic research suggests the existence of cultural diversity beyond the scope of current genetic datasets, reports Scientific American.

As an illustration of their findings, researchers observed that despite the widespread availability of foxes and red deer across the continent during the Gravettian period, these animals were selectively incorporated into beads by specific cultural groups. This suggests that certain Gravettian communities possessed distinct preferences or cultural practices related to the use of specific animal materials in bead making.

"At this time, foxes and red deer were everywhere," Baker said. "However, we only see people wearing fox canines in the east, even though you can get them everywhere. And we only really find people wearing red deer canines in the west. So even though they're available everywhere, there's a clear difference in what they're choosing."

Researchers were able to confirm the existence of most cultural groups identified in the archaeological record by comparing them with existing genetic data. However, they encountered challenges in identifying one specific eastern European group due to the lack of known genetic data available for that region. Additionally, two cultural groups in Iberia were only supported by genetic data from a single individual, further complicating the analysis.

For Baker, the research also serves as a reminder that even during the harsh conditions of an ice age, human creativity and cultural expression flourished, with prehistoric populations continuing to create objects of beauty to adorn themselves. The study also serves as an anthropological insight into the resilience and creative spirit of our ancestors.

Top image: Between 34,000 and 24,000 years ago, diverse European cultures from the Gravettian period utilized marine shells, teeth, beads, and other ornaments for personal adornment, shown here. Source: J. Baker, et al/Nature    

By Sahir Pandey

References

Baker, J.,  et al. 2024.  Evidence from personal ornaments suggest nine distinct cultural groups between 34,000 and 24,000 years ago in Europe. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-023-01803-6.

Nalewicki, J. 2024.  Prehistoric jewelry reveals 9 distinct cultures across Stone Age Europe. Available at: https://www.livescience.com/archaeology/prehistoric-jewelry-reveals-9-distinct-cultures-across-stone-age-europe.

Wild, S.  Ancient Jewelry Shows Ice Age Europe Had 9 Distinct Cultures. Available at: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/ancient-jewelry-shows-ice-age-europe-had-9-distinct-cultures/.

 
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Sahir

I am a graduate of History from the University of Delhi, and a graduate of Law, from Jindal University, Sonepat. During my study of history, I developed a great interest in post-colonial studies, with a focus on Latin America. I... Read More

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