History of Beads: Upper Paleolithic Era

History of Beads: Upper Paleolithic Era
History of Beads: Upper Paleolithic Era


In our previous history blog, we explored the origins of the earliest beads in the archaeological record, starting with the discoveries of marine shell beads of Blombos Cave, and ending with examples such as Grotte du Renne and Arcy-du-Sur, which all represent the timeline of advanced Homo sapiens populations and the eventual dying out of Neanderthals. 

To tell the story of the Upper Paleolithic, we start here: Homo sapiens were starting to dominate the landscape, and our species were starting to wander the planet as nomadic hunter-gatherers. Some key developments in crafting technologies appeared in the Upper Paleolithic era (c. 33,000 BP (Before Present) and we start to see some incredible new examples of beads and jewelry craftsmanship.

 Image: Wikimedia Commons

Prior to the Upper Paleolithic, the simplest forms of beads mark the beginnings of creating wearable personal expression, and they help us understand on the simplest level how we as humans conceptualize, create, and share our creations with others. Simple perforated shells, disks, and baubles are the relics of jewelry prehistory, but they become more sophisticated as our species learned new skills and gained access to new materials for crafting. After the Upper Paleolithic era, we see an elaboration of new crafting technologies used to create beads and art forms, new forms of adornment, and unique distinctions across cultures. 

Image: Wikimedia Commons

The proliferation of modern Homo sapiens across the world opened up a myriad of styles, and it would be a very long blog post to try to discuss all of them with the kind of detailed examination that they all deserve. So for all intents and purposes, we will explore the period from approximately c. 33,000 BP-12,000 BP (Before Present), when the archaeological record starts to explode.

In Europe in particular, the “renaissance” of tool-making technology was beginning to appear, thanks to the Magdalenian people (the time period is also called the Magdalenian). Magdalenians successfully adapted to the harsh post-glacial landscape of Europe, and were skilled at creating projectile hunting weapons, tailored clothing, and a variety of artistic objects, including beads.

An example of an incredible Magdalenian site is the burial at Barma Grande, near Grimaldi in southern France. A necklace of three parallel rows of fish vertebrae, shells, and stag canine teeth arranged symmetrically were found alongside the skeleton of a man of status. Previously, Upper Paleolithic societies were understood to be largely egalitarian in nature, and the burials and placement of the objects indicated the likelihood of prestige and privilege. Before the discovery of this burial, there was little evidence to suggest that early Homo sapiens or Neanderthals had social hierarchies.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

At a site called Saint-Germain-La-Rivière, the discovery of another Magdalenian period burial provided a window of insight into the social relationships of Magdalenian people. An adult woman’s skeleton was found adorned with 70 red deer teeth that were perforated by a flint tool to be used as beads; many of which have a unique engraved design and were smeared with red ochre. Through analysis of the burial context, or the ways in which items were deposited and positioned in the burial, the biographies of the objects and the people buried begin to take shape. The cosmology, beliefs, social interaction, and the behaviors associated with use of various adornment materials reveals the creative lives of Magdalenian people.

Image: Mauricio Antón - from Caitlin Sedwick (1 April 2008)

In Czechoslovakia, perforation was also being used as a decorative technique. Pieces of bone and ivory were being ground into distinctive shapes and then decorated with small incisions. The sites of Dolni Vestonice and Pavlov are the most well-known archaeological sites with great examples of these new techniques, and are key sites of the mammoth-hunting Ice-Age culture of central Europe. These sites also had some of the first examples of beads using fertility-related symbolism in the shapes of female breasts and torsos.

Image: Wikimedia Commons



Image: Wikimedia Commons

Outside of Europe, the archaeological record of beads is more sparse in this time period, despite evidence of several Upper Paleolithic sites in India, China, Korea, Libya, and even Australia. In India, the cave site Patne was found with evidence of trade in bead materials. A bead made from marine shell was found more than 350 miles from its original source dating back to 25,000 BP. The first definite, uncontested evidence of beads on the African continent were found in Haua Fteah in Libya, and were disk-shaped ostrich eggshell beads from 12,000 BP. Despite the much earlier discoveries of Blombos Cave in South Africa of marine shell beads from 70,000 BP, there has been much debate among archaeologists and historians about what constitutes the first real “bead”.

The Upper Paleolithic exploded with examples of symbolic expression in ceremonial objects and paraphernalia, as well as personal adornment through the clear usage of beads. Because of Homo sapiens specialization and mastery of carving, engraving, and tool usage, we start to see higher quality and more sophisticated artistic designs.

As our species became more advanced in the Upper Paleolithic, the function of beads and jewelry as symbolic adornment was related to the hunting prowess of the era, and communities revolved around the practice of hunting migratory herd animals. Later on in the Neolithic Revolution after 10,000 BP (Before Present), there is a distinct shift from hunter-gatherer societies to settled food production, and more time and resources to dedicate to the production of crafts and art. In future blogs, we’ll take a closer look at the Neolithic era and the amazing advancements in technology, materials, and the development of cultural styles and designs.

We hope you've enjoyed reading and learned something new. Until next time!

- Molly Garson, Associate Director



Dubin, Lois Sherr. The History of Beads: from 100,000 B.C. to the Present. Abrams, 2009.

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  • Heather Kahn
Comments 1
  • Chris

    I have a very interesting “bead” my son found on beach in Pacific Northwest. I have found many native artifacts but I believe this to be older and the precision of holes is mind blowing.

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