The Shaman and The Spirit Master

Wow – What is it?

Bizarre, vaguely human figures in rock art have long puzzled viewers. They look a little like people yet clearly they’re something else. Why do they have weird heads, often without facial features? Why do they often have fewer than five fingers on each hand (or occasionally more)? Why do they have long torsos and missing limbs?

Anasazi pictograph

Animal Master PBA


Learning to see through others’ eyes

In the 19th century, anthropologist Edward B. Tyler introduced the concept of animism to describe the widespread ancient belief that all entities, including humans, animals, and natural features such as mountains, rivers, and trees, have souls, or spirits. All of these entities are interconnected, sharing a magical power. The person is identified not just by a physical body but by all of the connections made to the rest of the spirit world. Tyler found this belief to be the oldest and most common spiritual belief in the world. (It’s also the basis of “The Force” in the Star Wars films.)

rock art in Arkansas

In the 1980s, David Lewis-Williams argued that many odd figures in rock art, including the spirals, dots, and therianthropes (figures that combine human and animal characteristics) were images typical of a visionary trance brought on by chanting, drumming, fasting, and taking hallucinogenic drugs. He pointed out that many of these images are typical of visual distortions associated with trance experiences. They have been replicated many times in experiments involving LSD. Lewis-Williams argued that the rock art figures like the one in the photo (left) represented the shaman in the process of transformation into something supra-human, able to change physical form and slip between worlds.


Game Pass Shelter pictographHe described the famous fresco on the wall of the Game Pass Shelter in the Drakensberg region of South Africa as a shaman in a dream state connecting with the dream beast, the eland. The shaman is bleeding from the nose, as is the eland; their legs are crossed in exactly the same position. The eland is dying in order to bring rain to the people. The shaman has entered a pseudo-death in order to make the connection with the dream beast. For Lewis-Williams, the therianthrope – the figure combining human and animal characteristics – represents the shaman in his or her transformed state. (Photo left, drawing below)

Game Pass Shelter drawing


In 1976, Patricia Vinnicombe published the results of her work with the Drakensberg (South Africa) rock art paintings, in a book titled People of the Eland. In it, she reviewed stories told by San (Bushmen/Khoi San) people and recorded since the 19th century. Some told of a shaman catching a “rain beast” – usually a female ox, eland, elephant or other large herbivore. This was done through a trance, with the help of the group chanting, drumming, and dancing. Then the beast was sacrificed, and rain would fall where the beast was killed.

Interestingly, two San men that Patricia Vinnicombe interviewed saw the therianthropes in this image as mythical people of an earlier race, the First Bushmen, not images of transformed shamans.

These seem to be two very different explanations, but they may in fact be complementary. The shaman in a trance state may be the means of contacting spirit entities, including animal spirits, nature spirits, and spirits of the dead.

South central California rock art

New research on rock art in southeast California may suggest a slightly different way of seeing the famous panel in South Africa – and perhaps another mysterious figure found in the deepest part of Chauvet Cave in southern France.

The Patterned Body Anthromorphs Patterned body anthromorphs, Coso Range, CA

While studying thousands of rock art images in what is now the China Lake Air Force Base, Dr. Alan Garfinkle and his associates noted over 700 strange figures they called Patterned Body Anthromorphs, images notable for a long torso marked with various patterns, a head devoid of normal facial features, and truncated or missing legs, often with three toes. Sometimes a twisted snake accompanied the figure. In many cases, there was no gender evident, but in others, the figure had male, female, or both male and female characteristics. Almost all carried a staff or atlatl (dart thrower). Some carried a bag of seeds, which trailed out in lines behind the figure.


The Kawaiisu and other American Indian groups that lived in the area where the paintings appeared shared similar beliefs, which Dr. Garfinkel felt could provide a frame of reference for the rock art figures. Caves were seen as important places, imbued with sacred power. A spirit named Yahwera lived in a cave where the spirits of all the animals resided, even animals that had been killed.


In the spring, Yahwera opened the portal and allowed the regenerated animals to fill the land. Yahwera also provided healing medicines (“magic songs”) and successful hunts. Occasionally, a human, through accidental discovery or shamanistic transformation, could enter the world of Yahwera through a portal in a rock surface or a cave. There, below ground, the visitor would see all the animals, including those waiting to be reborn. Guarded by a large snake, the androgynous Yahwera was the keeper of the animals, wisdom, and power.


Images of Yahwera were inscribed on the sites of the portals. A known portal to the home of Yahwera was located near a spring and marked with an image of the Animal Master: a humanoid figure with red circles for the face, a feathered headdress and clawed feet. Next to the figure was a snake almost as tall as the main figure.Animal Master, Coso

The two drawings included (left) are representations of the patterned body anthromorphs in the Coso rock art collection (on the left) and the known representation of Yahwera, the guardian of the animal spirits (on the right).

The Yokuts, another tribe in the area, refer to rock art sites as “shaman’s caches,” vaults of magic power. When a shaman spoke to the rock, the portal opened, and the Spirit Master gave the shaman magic songs and wisdom.

The shaman as intermediary

The shaman talks to the rock, but the Spirit Master opens it. In this sense, the shaman is the intermediary. Because he can break the confines of this world, he is able to intercede for the people, asking the Spirit Master to release the game the people need to live. (I’m referring to the shaman as male though San people indicate that any male or female could accept the dangerous role of dream healer if desired.) The shaman delivers the request, not only for game but also for rain, wisdom, or cures for sickness. In this way, the shaman is acting in the same role as a modern priest, delivering the faithful’s requests to their Spirit Master.

One Kawaiisu narrative tells of a man who took jimsonweed (or raw tobacco in other versions) and found Yahwera’s cave. Inside he saw many animals, including deer and bear, who spoke the same language as the people. Yahwera explained that the animals weren’t really dead; they were only waiting to be reborn. At the end of the experience, the man was cured of his illness and left the cave through water at the end of a tunnel. When he came out, he found himself far from his starting point. He’d been gone so long, his people thought he had died.

In the Coso rock art, the strange figures on the rock surface are probably not shamans in a transformative state. According to tribal beliefs recorded in the 19th and 20th century, the figures represented the Spirit Master, the keeper of the animals, the source of magical power. The shaman was the one who is sensitive enough to find the portal to the Spirit Master’s realm and powerful enough to traverse the dangerous realms beyond this one.

Rock art images like the one included here from Utah seem to indicate a hierarchy of spirits because one figure is so much larger and dominates the image.  While all things living and dead may share in spirit energy, some are apparently far more powerful than others. Horseshoe Canyon, Utah, HolyGhost


An interesting side note:

The Memegwashio Indians of Quebec explain the red handprints on the rock over a sacred place as the mark of the spirits where they close the portal.

And another:

Cheyenne traditional beliefs held that the realm of deep earth could be accessed through sacred caves. In certain caverns animal spirits gathered, from which the animals might be released in physical form or refused rebirth.



And now to ancient cave art in Europe

Please forgive the jump from North American cave art to Europe 35,000 years ago. I don’t pretend to know the cultural references that would explain the beautiful ancient cave art of southern France and northern Spain, but others more knowledgeable than I have seen some commonality that bears examination. And the similarities are hard to ignore.

The oldest cave painting in Europe, possibly the work of our Neanderthal cousins, is a series of handprints on the wall of El Castillo Cave in Spain dated to 40,800 years ago. The cave shows no evidence of use as a living space, so it was apparently visited for other purposes. If the artists were Neanderthals, they were painting at the end of their reign. Not many years later, modern humans took over. Still, the idea that they may have marked the cave as special and that modern humans continued the association is intriguing. We now know that Neanderthals and modern humans interbred. Perhaps their ideology was passed along as well.

As Enrico Comba points out in his paper, “Amerindian Cosmologies and European Prehistoric Cave Art: Reasons for and Usefulness of a Comparison,” rock art of Paleolithic Europe is an art of caves, mostly in remote areas hard to access. The figures are mostly animals. The few human figures are hybrids – human/animal crosses. The cave functions as a womb and a refuge for the animals, much the way that Yahwera’s cave held the animals in the California rock art references.

The second-oldest known cave art in Europe is in Chauvet Cave, at least 32,000 years old. The animals painted are realistic yet dreamlike, incomplete, presented in moving groups without any ground line.lascauxpanorama

In the back of the cave, in the last and deepest chamber, is a curious image known by some as “Venus and the Sorcerer.” It is a combination of a bull head and a pubic triangle surrounded by female legs that blend into the front leg of the bull and the leg of a lioness.

Venus and Sorcerer

It’s not much of a stretch to see this image as the Spirit Master, the keeper of the animal spirits in the cave, similar to the androgynous spirit that the shaman called upon in California art to release the animals held in the cave so they could be reborn in the spring.

Once again, the cave would function as the home of the animals, many of them pregnant with new life. It’s certainly an interesting possibility – that the mysterious Sorcerer/Venus figure in the very back of Chauvet Cave serves the same function as the Spirit Master.


Sources and interesting reading:

“Ancient Rock Art of the World,” Rock Art Documentary, DVD, ILecture Films, Boilerplate Productions, made in conjunction with the Bradshaw Foundation

“Art of the Chauvet Cave,” Ice Age Paleolithic Cave Painting, Bradshaw Foundation

“Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” DVD, Chauvet Cave documentary film by Werner Herzog, IFC Films, 2010

“Cave Painting,” Wikipedia

“Cave Paintings (40,000 – 10,000 BC)”

Comba, Erico, “Amerindian Cosmologies and European Prehistoric Cave Art: Reason for and Usefulness of a Comparison,” Arts journal, 27 December 2013

Garfinkel, Alan, with Donald Austin, David Earle, and Harold Williams, “Myth, ritual and rock art: Coso decorated animal-humans and the Animal Master,” Petroglyphs.US, 19 May 2009 <;

Garfinkel, Alan and Steven J. Waller, “Sounds and Symbolism from the Netherworld: Acoustic Archaeology and the Animal Master’s Portal,” Pacific Coast Archaeological Society Quarterly Vol.46, 4

Howley, Andrew. “70th Anniversary of the Discovery of Lascaux” National Geographic Newswatch, 17 September 2010,

Lymer, Kenneth, “Shimmering Visions: Shamanistic Rock Art Images from the Republic of Kazakhstan,” Expedition (Journal of the Museum of Pennsylvania), vol. 46, no. 1

Solomon, Anne. The Essential Guide to San Rock Art. South Africa: ABC Press, 1998

“The Sorcerer (cave art)” Wikipedia

“Talking Stone: Rock Art of the Cosos,” DVD starring Dr. Alan Garfinkel, distributed by the Bradshaw Foundation

Than, Ker. “World’s Oldest Cave Art Found – Made by Neanderthals?” National Geographic News, 14 June 2012,

“Venus and the Sorcerer” image from

Witze, Alexandra, “Rock Art Revelations?” American Archaeology, Summer 2014, vol 18, no. 2, 33-37.




The Color of Life and Death

The Color of Life and Death

Blombos Cave in South Africa was already famous in archaeological circles as the site where researchers found a series of pierced shells, carefully worked stone points, a tool kit, and a block of red ochre marked with crisscross designs, all more than 60,000 years old (photo).  (See earlier post “I Think; Therefore I Decorate Myself.”)  Most of the media attention went to the shells as evidence of some of the oldest, if not the oldest, jewelry in the world.  Perhaps while we were dazzled by the jewelry, we should have looked a little more closely at the decorated block of red ochre that went with them.

This month, Blombos Cave was in the news again, in the journal Science and The New
York Times
.  An international team of researchers working in Blombos Cave, led by Dr. Christopher Hencilwood, has identified a full paint kit which is 100,000 years oldThe main ingredient of the paint is red ochre, a mineral clay that gets its color from iron oxide.  Tools at the site include hammerstones and grind stones to chip and crush the clay and abalone shells to serve as bowls.  (See photo.) In order to get the composition they wanted, the ancient people mixed the crushed red ochre with animal fat, charcoal, stone chips, quartz grains, and some liquid, then stirred the mix in the shells.  The find also included stir sticks with the same substance still on them.

Why was red ochre worth all this effort?

This is a difficult question to answer, but there are some clues.  In many ancient societies, red ochre was associated with blood and therefore with both life and death.  It was used in body decoration, medicines, wood and sail preservatives, compounds for dying and preserving skins, as well as preparations used on the dead.  Ochre-painted bones dated to 62,000 years ago were found in Australia.  The practice was also common in Mesoamerica.  In parts of Asia, cinnabar was used instead.

Ancient Pict warriors (Scotland) painted themselves with red ochre.  The Celts (England and Ireland) were called “red men” from their habit of painting themselves with a substance called bog iron.  The Chumash Indians (California) used red ochre in their body paint.  The Moche (Peru) used it in face paint. Ancient Egyptian women used red ochre for their lipstick and rouge.  Australian Aborigines used different color
ochre pigments (red, yellow, brown) for their body and rock paintings.

In many other cases, red pigment was rubbed on a sacred object in order to awaken its power.

Today, many people still use red ochre in body
painting.  The Maasai paint their bodies and color their hair with red ochre (photo). Hamar brides in Africa wear a mixture of ochre and animal fat.  Sudanese women from the Nuba mountains wear a mixture of oil and red ochre between puberty and their first pregnancy.  Iron oxide is one of the ingredients in common makeup blusher.

While not all of these uses are the same, they all point to a spiritual and social value of red pigment associated with blood, life, power, fertility, even death.

The blocks and paint pots found at Blombos might then represent both spirit power and trade wealth.

The people who left these pots behind were knowledgeable in the materials needed to get them the red paint they wanted.  That involved transfer of information (I tried it this way and it didn’t work.  I found a good source of red ochre about a day’s hike from here.), gathering or manufacture of tools, and plan for the dissemination of this material.  There was no hearth found with the paint pots.  Did they go to this cave specifically to make paint?  Was the cross-hatch mark a way to bring out the magical power of the block,  a way to claim ownership, or a counting system?  At this point we can’t tell, but these bring up more questions about these people’s intelligence, their communication system, their social network, and their cosmological beliefs.

To go back to the decorated blocks for a moment, look at the cross-hatch marks, including the top and bottom lines that enclose the design.  It’s a very purposeful creation.  It would seem to move the date for the first art back from 40,000 years ago (the cave paintings of France and Spain) to 100,000 years ago, which is quite a step.  But, you complain, a couple of decorated blocks aren’t much; there aren’t any paintings in Blombos Cave.  True. I suspect the canvas was the human body, not a rock wall.  The people who valued the pierced shells in the first necklace had to have a beautiful painted body on which to wear it.

The oldest art is body art, much of which is still alive today, from the exquisite henna designs on a bride to the tattooed face of a Maori to the array of clothing, hair styles, makeup, piercings, and tattoos worn by people of all ages walking the streets of America.  The sense of purposeful creation of ourselves is part of our heritage as humans.

Ancient Ostrich Eggshells: Lines, Patterns, Spirits

The Discovery

In 2010, an archaeological team led by Pierre-Jean Texier of the Univeristy of Bordeaux, France, made an incredible find in the Diepkloof Rock Shelter in South Africa: 270 ostrich eggshell fragments engraved with geometric designs (pictured, left).  What’s particularly interesting about this find is the date: 60,000 years ago!  Just to put that in perspective, the only earlier design as yet identified, also from a South African cave, is a single cross-hatched block of red ochre, dated to an amazing 80,000 years ago.  The Chauvet Cave art in France, long thought to be the first expression of human art, is dated to 35,000 years ago, and the earliest Egyptian pyramid is a relative new-comer at 5,000 years ago.  So the discovery of the decorated ostrich eggshells means humans (or at least hominids) were making art – specific designs and patterns carefully created and repeated – a very long time ago.

Ostrich eggshells are large (about 4″ in diameter and 6″ in length) and quite strong; very useful, once they’ve been cleaned out, as cups, bowls, or canteens.  Since they can withstand heat, they might also have served as cookware.  Some Bushmen still use ostrich eggshells as canteens, plugging the hole with a mixture of grass and beeswax, and many people still use the shells as cups and bowls.  There’s a thriving craft business in decorated ostrich eggs, both whole and half shells, with designs ranging from elaborate drawings scratched into the shell to simple repeated geometric patterns.  You can browse a wide selection in gift shops through southern Africa.  I brought a decorated half-shell home (photo) in my checked bag, so it must be pretty strong.

It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that the ancient people treasured these versatile eggshells.  What is surprising is the clear sense of design in the fragments that were discovered.  Since the archaeologists had such a large sample to work with (270 fragments), they were able to see the repetition of very similar patterns.  All of the fragments shown in the photo have dots arranged in what seems to be a random scattering, sometimes over the whole fragment, sometimes over only part of it.  The horizontal lines and vertical marks between them are superimposed over the dots.  Althought ostrich eggs are typically off-white, the shell fragments in the find are grey, blue, red, orange, and green, perhaps indicating the use of dyes or pit firing to create different colors the way a potter would.

Some experts have dismissed the decorations as mere doodling, but their theory seems hard to believe.  Why would the ancient people take the time to mark and color these shells so carefully if they meant nothing?  It’s far more likely that they were very important indeed, but because the experts don’t understand the shells’ meaning, they’ve decided the designs are meaningless.

The Khoi-San/ Bushmen

The Khoi-San, more commonly known as the Bushmen, have some of the oldest patterns of mitochondrial DNA on the planet and are considered the oldest living race of humans.  In modern times, they have been persecuted and pushed to the edges of developed areas in South Africa and Botswana, but they once roamed over most of southen and central Africa.  However, according to research published in the American Journal of Human Genetics, the Khoi-San population dropped to only a few thousand individuals about 70,000 years ago, perhaps as the result of a prolonged drought.  Then the tiny bands that managed to survive came together and restarted the human race.  Many experts think this was also the time that modern, complex language developed and many people migrated to new areas, perhaps in search of a kinder enviroment.

It’s that amazing time that leads to these amazing shells.

The Trance Dance

In traditional Khoi-San/Bushmen practice, the trance dancer combines dancing, music, hyperventillation, concentration, and hallucinogenic drugs to reach the trance state.  Here, somewhere between life and death, he (or she) can mediate between the world of spirits and the world of people to try to restore balance.  In some cases, the shaman must fight off sickness or misfortune sent by the angry dead, often spoken of as arrows of harm the dead throw at the victim’s midsection.

According to the “San Religion” entry in Wikipedia, western researchers into the trance dance have attempted to replicate the trance dance experience in the lab by using LSD.  In their findings, the first part of the trance is an altered state of consciousness in which people see geometric shapes, especially zigzags, dots, flecks, and grids, vortexes and U-shapes.  These designs are very common in rock art of South Africa and on the ostrich eggshells.

In the later stages of the trance, subjects see multiple U-shaped figures like honeycombs.  There are many examples of these in Bushmen cave painting, including several with bees carefully painted in.  Finally, the subjects feel as if they are falling down a whirling vortex, seeing monsters and strange animals.  Some feel they’ve become half-animal.  Figure of animal-human hybrids, called theriotropes, are common in Bushmen cave paintings.

It seems possible, then, that the amazing ostrich eggshells are not mindless doodles at all but very purposeful pieces of art that mark a spiritual journey undertaken by many, perhaps a battle against the forces of evil that threated the existence of mankind.

Death and Half-Death

At first glance, it would seem that Americans ignore death.  We’re often uncomfortable talking about it or even thinking about it.  Some people won’t attend wakes or funerals even if a friend dies because they hate being around death.  We grow up with strange customs like holding our breath when we pass a cemetery.  Is this because the dead are dangerous?  Could they hurt us if we inhaled cemetery air?

We want everyone reassuringly young and good-looking.  Those are the people who fill our media.  They smile and we smile.  We like it that way.

And yet, curiously, the dead are fairly common in our entertainment.  Characters die on television programs every night.  Some shows depend on a murder for a plot.  Horror movies use corpses to frighten us.  Zombies and vampires, both very popular at the moment, share peculiar states between life and death.  Even mainstream entertainment often features the dead.  Consider movies like “Ghost,” wherein Sam (Patrick Swayze) is dead but needs to warn Molly (Demi Moore) of the danger she’s facing.  Oda Mae (Whoopi Goldberg) is the intermediary who gives Sam a voice in the world of the living, much to her surprise.  Or there’s “The Sixth Sense,” which features a boy who sees dead people.

Even classics like “A Christmas Carol” feature the dead.  Poor Marley’s Ghost is the one who is compelled to change Scrooge’s behavior.  In Disney’s “Mulan,” Mulan’s ancestors decide to protect her by sending out a guardian spirit.  In The Lord of the Rings films, Gandalf the Grey is defeated by the Balrog and dragged down into the Underworld, but he returns as Gandalf the White, a superior being for having visited death.  Later, Aragorn calls on an entire army of the dead to fight for him against Sauron’s legions, and indeed, they make the difference between victory and defeat.

In “Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back,” Luke (the apprentice shaman) learns from Yoda (the senior shaman) how to face the forces of evil (Darth Vader and The Empire in general).  The struggle is complicated by the realization that evil lies very close at hand: Darth Vader is Luke’s father.  At the end of “Star Wars: Return of the Jedi,” Darth Vader, Yoda, and Obi Wan, all of whom are dead, appear surrounded by glowing light to reassure the hero of the righteousness of his victory.

All this is to say that even a culture that claims to ignore death actually recognizes its importance.

Now, imagine you belonged to a world long ago.  You saw death frequently, and you needed to understand how death was part of life.  You knew there were certain people who had amazing powers.  They weren’t called doctors and didn’t keep strange office hours, but in a way, they held a similar position of respect.  They were people able to cross the barrier between life and death and to influence the course of events.  They were shamans.

Shamans were highly trained individuals who were able to leave life, and in a kind of half-death, they were able to travel to the spirit world, but it wasn’t easy.  In many cases, what ensued after the transformation was a battle between the forces of death and the forces of life.  In some cases, the shaman was trying to heal a sick person, so he had to battle the force that created sickness, a terrifying fight.

Sometimes, the shaman won, and the spirit of the sickness was driven away.  Sometimes, he lost.  Sometimes, even though he had done everything correctly, God wanted the person to sicken and die, so intervention was impossible.  This creates a hierarchy of power.  The lower levels are subject to change, so a spirit of sickness might be overcome in battle by a skilled shaman, but the highest power was beyond any of them.

What was given to the shaman, in return for his or her brave exploration of the world beyond this one, was power: knowledge of  powerful plants and rituals, ability to converse with the dead, understanding gained through ecstasy, freedom from individual personality achieved through trance, recognition of specific animal and spirit guides, ability to transform into another being, to fly into the heavens, to swim in the ocean depths, and most importantly, to understand the meaning of these journeys.

It was because these people were beyond this world that they were recognized as special.  San trance dancers could bring rain by dream-hunting the rain animal, a scene often portrayed in San rock art in South Africa.  In the rock art panel in the photo, trance dancers surround the rain beast.  As hunters, they would use their skill to kill the dream beast, whose blood would become rain.

In the next diagram, the San shaman-hunter stands behind the dying eland, which is bleeding from the nose.  The shaman in trance also bleeds from the nose.  His legs are crossed, just like the dying eland’s.  In order for the rain to come, the eland must die, and the shaman, whose feet are now like the eland’s feet, must die also.  That’s the only way he can enter the realm of the spirits and plead his case for his people.  He has entered a trance brought on by hallucinogenic plants and long practice, allowing him to reach, after great pain, shuddering, even convulsions, the state between life and death.  There, with his old life left behind, he can seek to rebalance what was in peril: a sick person, a land without rain, a fight between clans or tribes.

He can, in some cases, see the course of events to follow.  In the second book of the series, Misfits and Heroes: East from Oceania, the shaman sees the path of the future very clearly, but it is a vision so dire that he chooses not to share it with the people even though they asked him for it.

But let’s go back to the idea of holding your breath as you pass a cemetery.  There is something frightening about the dead because we don’t know how they feel about the living.  For that matter, we don’t know what the dead do.  In the movies, they walk into the shining light or roam the earth until their individual wrong is righted.  Then what?

In some cultures, the dead actively threaten the living, and it’s the shaman’s task to fight them.  In others, the dead are honored as continuing members of the family.  Their bodies are brought out for special occasions, offered favorite foods, and consulted in important decisions.  Then it’s the shaman’s task to interpret the dead’s wishes.

This question is central to the third story of the series, Misfits and Heroes: Southwest from Europe, in which one character has been refused a place of honor with the ancestors and sent back to the world of the living to try to lead a better life, and another character voluntarily chooses to leave with a group of people who died at sea.

I think; therefore I decorate myself

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.