Timeless

Look: Ancient jewelry marks a milestone in early human culture

When did our ancestors start making art, just like us?

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DE AGOSTINI PICTURE LIBRARY/De Agostini/Getty Images

Tens of thousands of years ago, early humans spent much of their time and energy on survival: Hunting, gathering, making tools, and building small settlements.

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In addition to these practical efforts, they also followed rituals, made art, and carved keepsakes.

A trove of archaeological discoveries shows how important artistic and cultural expression was to our ancient ancestors.

It’s unclear exactly when early humans first began using symbolic expression to communicate.

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A discovery from modern-day Poland described on November 25 in the journal Scientific Reports uncovers some of that past.

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Archaeologists unearthed a fractured ivory pendant from Stajnia Cave. The pendant is decorated with intentional markings.

They also found fragments of an awl carved from horse bone, which they think was used to decorate the charm.

The markings are 41,500 years old. This, the authors say, makes the pendant the oldest piece of decorated jewelry found in Eurasia.

© Antonino Vazzana - BONES Lab

© Antonino Vazzana - BONES Lab

The ivory is pockmarked with 50 small divots that follow a curved pattern.

Two holes, including a large one on the right, go all the way through — as if a chain could be threaded through.

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We don’t know what the markings mean yet. But there are clues.

“In other personal ornament and ivory objects, the use of the punctate pattern is easier to identify as the makers tried to imitate and transfer natural patterns in new contexts.”

Talamo et. al, study authors

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The pendant’s markings bear resemblance to the changing position of the Moon in the sky, the researchers suggest.

The pattern could also be a tally, or “kill score” to mark a successful hunt.

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But whoever made the pendant — and what they did with it — remains a mystery for now.