41,500-year-old pendant could be Eurasia’s oldest human-decorated jewelry

Humans have been creating and wearing jewelry for thousands of years. But it can be a challenge to find out exactly how long ago prehistoric humans started decorating items and using them as fashion accessories.

Archaeologists in Poland have discovered the remains of a 41,500-year-old pendant made of mammoth ivory and decorated with puncture marks, which is the oldest piece of jewelry decorated by modern humans in Eurasia on record. 

The pendant, which is now in two pieces, was found during archaeological excavations carried out in Stajnia Cave, Poland, in 2010, and recent radiocarbon work dates it to around 41,500 years ago, a team of scientists reported in a paper published online Thursday (Nov. 25) in the journal Scientific Reports

“The decoration of the pendant included patterns of over 50 puncture marks in an irregular looping curve, and two complete holes,” the team said in a statement. They noted that each puncture could represent a successful animal hunt or cycles of the moon or sun.

“It is the oldest known [jewelry] of its kind in Eurasia and it establishes a new starting date for a tradition directly connected to the spread of modern Homo sapiens in Europe,” the researchers wrote in the study.

The pendant was likely worn around someone’s neck, but we can’t be certain, said study lead researcher Sahra Talamo, a chemistry professor at the University of Bologna in Italy, who specializes in human evolution and radiocarbon dating.

The researchers noted that the pendant was created at a time when anatomically modern humans were first developing jewelry and other forms of body adornment around the world. Why humans started using jewelry at this time is a mystery that researchers are trying to understand, Talamo said.

The largest piece of the pendant is 4.5 cm long and 1.5 cm wide while the awl measures 68.33 mm in length. The team used digital methodologies such as micro-tomographic scans and 3D reconstruction.

“Through 3D modelling techniques, the finds were virtually reconstructed and the pendant was appropriately restored, allowing detailed measurements and supporting the description of the decorations,” notes co-author Stefano Benazzi, director of the Osteoarchaeology and Paleoanthropology Laboratory (BONES Lab) at the Department of Cultural Heritage, University of Bologna.

Mass spectrometry analysis revealed that the pendant was made from mammoth ivory and the awl from a horse bone.

“This piece of jewellery shows the great creativity and extraordinary manual skills of members of the group of Homo sapiens that occupied the site,” said co-author Wioletta Nowaczewska of Wroclaw University.

Co-author Andrea Picin from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig added that the ages of the ivory pendant and the bone awl finally demonstrate that the dispersal of Homo sapiens in Poland took place as early as in Central and Western Europe.