SCIENCE NEWS: The earliest evidence of humans decorating jewelery in Eurasia

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The Stajnia pendant is decorated with a pattern of at least 50 punctures, creating an irregular looping curve. Credit: (c) Antonino Vazzana – BONES Lab

A new multidisciplinary study by an international team reports the discovery of an ivory pendant decorated with a pattern of at least 50 punctures, creating an irregular looping curve. The direct radiocarbon date of the ornament yields an age of 41,500 years. This result indicates that the Stajnia Cave jewelry is the oldest punctate ornament known to date in Eurasia, predating other instances of this type of decoration activity by 2,000 years. This discovery expands our knowledge about the time period in Eurasia when decorative objects were first created by Homo sapiens. The study is published in Scientific Reports.

Upon their dispersals in Central and Western Europe by around 42,000 years ago, groups of Homo sapiens started to manipulate mammoth tusks for the production of pendants and mobiliary objects, like carved statuettes, at times decorated with geometric motifs. In addition to lines, crosses and hashtags, a new type of decoration–the alignment of punctuations–appeared in some ornaments in south-western France and figurines in Swabian Jura in Germany. These adornments have been discovered mostly from older excavations. Their chronological attributions are still uncertain. The debates surrounding the evolution of human body augmentation as well as the spread of mobiliary art throughout Europe remain intense.

A new study led by the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (Germany), the University of Bologna (Italie), Wroclaw University (Poland), the Polish Geological Institute – National Research Institute, Warsaw, Poland and the Institute of Systematics and Evolution of Animals Polish Academy of Sciences has revealed that the oldest punctate ivory pendant ever found in Eurasia. Its age of 41,500 years places this personal ornament from Stajnia Cave within the record of the earliest dispersals of Homo sapiens in Europe.

Methodological advances in radiocarbon dating

“Determining the exact age of this jewelry was fundamental for its cultural attribution, and we are thrilled of the result. This work shows that radiocarbon dating is a highly accurate method and can be used to determine the exact age of the jewelry with very low error rates. Radiocarbon dating is essential if we are to resolve the question of when mobiliary art appeared in Paleolithic periods. This includes ornaments found in complex stratigraphic sequences or during fieldwork.” Sahra Talamo (lead author of the study, director of the BRAVHO radiocarbon laboratory at Bologna University’s Department of Chemistry G. Ciamician) said.

The digital methods used to study the pendant and the awl were also used, starting with micro-tomographic scans. “Through 3D modeling techniques the finds were virtually rebuilt and the pendant appropriately restored. This allowed for detailed measurements and support the description of decorations,” says Stefano Benazzi (co-author), director of the Osteoarchaeology Laboratory (BONES Lab), at the Department of Cultural Heritage University of Bologna.

View from the air of Stajnia Cave, Poland. Credit: (c) Marcin Zarski

The personal ornament was discovered in 2010 during fieldwork directed by co-author Mikolaj Urbanowski among animal bones and a few Upper Paleolithic stone tools. From the cave’s archaeological record, it was possible to identify two distinct short-term occupations of Neanderthals or Homo sapiens. It is likely that the pendant was taken out of the cave during a hunt expedition to the Krakow-Czestochowa upland, where it broke.

Similar decorations appeared independently across Europe

” This piece of jewelry demonstrates the extraordinary creativity and manual skills of the members of the Homo sapiens group that occupied this site. Wioletta Nowaczewska, co-author at Wroclaw University, says that the plate measures 3.7 millimeters thick. This demonstrates an amazing precision in carving the holes and punctures.

” It is unclear if the looping curve of the Stajnia pendant indicates a lunar analemma, or kill scores. It is nevertheless fascinating that similar decorations have appeared independently in Europe,” said Adam Nadachowski, co-author from the Institute of Systematics and Evolution of Animals Polish Academy of Sciences.

In broad-scale scenarios about the earliest expansions of Homo sapiens within Europe, the territory in Poland is often excluded. This suggests that it was abandoned for many millennia following the death of Neanderthals. The ages of the ivory pendant’s ivory and bone awls found in Stajnia Cave show that Homo sapiens spread to Poland as soon as it did in Central and Western Europe. This amazing result will alter the way we see how adaptable these early groups are and challenge the monocentric model that propagated the artistic innovation in Aurignacian.” Andrea Picin, co-author from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology Leipzig.

Another detailed analysis of the ivory assemblages at Stajnia Cave in Poland and other locations in Poland is currently underway. These analyses promise to provide more insight into the production strategies for personal ornaments in Central-Eastern Europe.

More information:
Sahra Talamo, A 41,500 year-old decorated ivory pendant from Stajnia Cave (Poland), Scientific Reports (2021). DOI: 10.1038/s41598-021-01221-6.

Earliest evidence of humans decorating jewelery in Eurasia (2021, November 25)
retrieved 25 November 2021

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