There is great debate in the archaeological community right now over what might be the world’s oldest jewelry.
The big contenders are:
The pierced, dyed shells found at Blombos Cave, South Africa, dated to 75,000 years ago (shown at left)
The pierced shells coated in red clay found in Morocco, dated to 82,000 years ago
The pierced and decorated ostrich shells found in Tanzania, dated to 70,000 years ago
The pierced, decorated snail shells found in Israel, dated to 100,000 years ago
The decorated shells and bone objects found in Algeria, dated to 90,000 years ago.
There is no current winner because everyone wants their contestant to win, so there is a good deal of criticism of other contendenders.
Regardless of which is the very oldest, it’s interesting to note, while looking at these very old dates, that at the same time that people were busy designing practical things like spear points and fish hooks, they went to the trouble to make jewelry. Even more interesting is the fact that it seemed to serve many of the same purposes it does today.
Self-decoration, to many archaeologists, suggests a clear sense of self. Their reasoning is if you don’t know you exist, you don’t care if you have a string of fabulous pierced, dyed beads to wear around your neck.
I’d suggest it meant a great deal more back then, just as it does now. First, it’s a show of wealth. It means you have enough money to buy food, clothing, and shelter and have enough left over to buy a gold watch or a labradorite ring. In addition, these objects may be sold or traded, so they are a form of wealth that you can wear.
It’s also a sign of social status. Your diamond tennis bracelet makes a clear statement about you and your place in the world.
The wedding ring you wear is a symbol of association. So is a school ring, birthstone ring, Super Bowl ring, friendship ring, cross pendant, flag pin, etc.
Jewelry, in ancient times, was also important in burial rituals; most of the finds archeologists make are associated with burials. This means that as long ago as 75,000 years ago, people were burying their dead with their wealth, an indication of a sense of an afterlife where the dead would need these goods.
There seemed to be little distinction between beautiful jewelry and fine tools, at least in grave goods. Ancient toolmakers often spent an inordinate amount of time in making incredibly beautiful points, when something courser would have suficed to kill their prey. Beauty and fine workmanship are interchangeable. A fine spear point or fish hook has the same aesthetic value, it seems, as a string of beads. The stone tools pictured below were excavated from Blombos Cave, the same site as the pierced shells pictured above.
Most of the information here was taken from National Geographic articles, especially “Old Jewelry Found in Morocco Cave” and “Oldest Jewelry? ‘Beads’ Discovered in African Cave.” For more information about the shells pictured above, you can Google Blombos Cave, in South Africa.
In Misfits and Heroes: West from Africa, Sheeah is having her hair braided and decorated with snail shells and carved tigerwood nuts. The finished product would have been a great show of wealth as well as beauty, and it would have suited her status as the daughter of the chief.