Jewelry of ancient times indicated the existence of 9 distinct cultures in Europe during the Ice Age

Prehistoric jewelry made from shells, amber, and ivory illuminates ancient European cultures

Humans have been adorning themselves with personal ornamentation for several years, a practice that has been prevalent since ancient times. The various ways in which prehistoric people adorned themselves can provide valuable insights into their long-forgotten cultures. A recent study has used over 100 types of beads made from materials such as shells, ivory, and others to reveal that there were at least nine distinct cultural groups that lived in the frozen landscapes of Europe between 34,000 and 24,000 years ago.

These cultures were so unique that anyone could differentiate them just by looking at the embellishments on the bodies of their members, even if they had similar genetics. A recent research also reveals that culture was a stronger factor than genetics. “We’ve shown that you can have two [distinct] genetic groups of people who actually share a culture,” says the study’s lead author Jack Baker, a doctoral candidate in prehistory at the University of Bordeaux in France.

A new study, which was published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, has analyzed 134 different types of beads from 112 sites across Europe. These sites date back to a prehistoric ice age that occurred between 34,000 and 24,000 years ago. The study found that personal ornaments from this period were surprisingly diverse, with ivory fashioned into owl-like shapes, beads carved to look like human breasts, amber pendants, shells with holes in them and a wide variety of animal teeth. By studying these and other types of adornments, the researchers were able to identify nine distinct cultural groups of hunter-gatherers who lived during this period. While some of these trinkets were found in burials, most were discovered at ancient dwelling sites.

“In the East, for example, they were very, very much more focused on ivory, on teeth, on stone,” Baker says. But on the other side of the Alps, people would have adorned themselves with “really relatively flamboyant colors: reds, pinks, blues, really vibrant colors.” If you were to see one person from each group, he adds, “you could say, ‘He’s from the East, and he’s from the West,’” at a quick glance.

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According to Baker, the study revealed that distance and isolation had a minimal impact on the differences between the ornaments that different groups wore in necklaces, bracelets, and other trinkets. This suggests that other factors, such as the availability of materials, cultural sharing among groups, and an individual’s social status, played a more significant role. The study also found that the differences in ornaments were more pronounced in burial sites compared to places where people lived. “Cultural differences crystallize better around things like funerary rites,” Baker says, adding that this highlights the importance of taking site usage into context when investigating ancient human behavior.

Marjolein Bosch, a paleolithic zooarchaeologist at the Austrian Archaeological Institute, who wasn’t involved in the new study, ays it “clearly highlights differences in the range of ornamental diversity between these two archaeological contexts and points toward different narratives in cultural expression in the realms of life and death.”

The discovery of nine different cultures was consistent with the paleogenomic data that revealed the presence of several groups in Europe during that era, however, some discrepancies were noted. The researchers were able to identify one unique culture through the analysis of artifacts, but there is currently no genetic data available for this particular group. “This study has shown really nicely that genetics does not equal culture,” Baker says.

The new study “tells us that there is a right and a wrong way to study and report about identity in the past…. One of the dangerous problems with ancient genomics is that genes aren’t proxies for group or individual identity; our identities are shaped by our cultural milieu,” says Sheela Athreya, a professor at the department of anthropology at Texas A&M University, who also was not involved in the new research. Building both individual and group identity is an “enormously complex human process.”

For Baker, the research also highlights that—even during an ice age, when environmental conditions were “horrendous”—“we still flourish, and we still create things that are beautiful to adorn ourselves.

This news is a creative derivative product from articles published in famous peer-reviewed journals and Govt reports:

1. Jordan, P. Technology as Human Social Tradition: Cultural Transmission Among Hunter-Gatherers Vol. 7 (Univ. California Press, 2014).
2. O’Brien, M. J. & Lyman, R. L. Evolutionary archeology: current status and future prospects. Evol. Anthropol. 11, 26–36 (2002).
3. Pettitt, P. The Palaeolithic Origins of Human Burial (Routledge, 2013).
4.Bar-Yosef, O. & Kuhn, S. L. The big deal about blades: laminar technologies and human evolution. Am. Anthropol. 101, 322–338 (1999).
5.Bon, F. At the crossroad. Palethnol. Archéol. Sci. Hum. https://doi. org/10.4000/palethnologie.680 (2015).

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