Prehistoric Jewelry: A Glimpse into 9 Ice Age Societies

Personal ornaments, such as beads, pendants and shells, have been used by humans for tens of thousands of years to express their cultural identity and social status. A new study has revealed that there were at least nine distinct cultural groups of hunter-gatherers living in Europe between 34,000 and 24,000 years ago, each with their own unique style of adornment. The study also found that some of these groups shared the same ornaments even though they had different genetic backgrounds, suggesting that culture was more important than ancestry in shaping their identities.

The study, published in Nature Human Behaviour , analyzed more than 130 types of personal ornaments from 112 sites across Europe, dating back to the ice age period known as the Gravettian culture. The Gravettians are best known for their venus figurines, such as the Venus of Willendorf, but they also produced a remarkable diversity of beads and pendants made from animal bones, teeth, shells, amber, stone and ivory. Some of these ornaments resembled fishtails, owls or human breasts, while others were carved with geometric patterns or painted with vibrant colors.

The researchers identified nine different categories of ornaments based on their shape, material and decoration. They then compared these categories across geographical regions and genetic data from burial sites to see how they related to each other. They found that some categories were more common in certain regions than others, reflecting local preferences and traditions. For example, in the east of Europe, people favored ivory, teeth and stone ornaments, while in the west they preferred shells, coral and amber.

However, they also found that some categories were shared by different regions and genetic groups, indicating that there was cultural exchange and interaction among the Gravettian people. For instance, one category of ornaments made from perforated shells was found in both western and eastern Europe, as well as in people with different ancestries. This suggests that these ornaments had a symbolic meaning that transcended genetic boundaries and that they were used to communicate a common identity or affiliation.

The study provides a new insight into the cultural diversity and complexity of the Gravettian people, who lived in a harsh and changing environment during the last ice age. It also shows that personal ornaments can be powerful tools to reconstruct the social and cultural dynamics of ancient societies and to understand how humans express their identity through material culture.

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