Early humans dressed for dinner

Jewellery appears in different places at similar times. <br>© Corbis <br>

Sophisticated jewellery appeared with social events.

Our early ancestors glammed-up for a get-together. Humans worldwide began wearing jewellery at the same time as groups started meeting up, say US researchers. The finding counters the idea that ’modern’ behaviour swept the globe when modern humans migrated out of Africa.

Mary Stiner and her colleagues unearthed ancient necklaces at three sites in Asia, Africa and Europe. Residents of Kenya around 40,000 years ago wore beads and pendants made from ostrich eggshell; those in Turkey and Lebanon preferred seashell chic1.

Such ornaments are seen as a sign of sophisticated behaviour. “We think it typifies modern humans,” says Stiner, of the University of Arizona in Tucson. Like today’s wedding rings and medallions, jewellery says a lot about availability, wealth and religion. “These trinkets really do matter,” she says.

Adornments appeared when growing populations made groups more likely to encounter each other, she told the meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston.

Suffering artists

Animal remains around the Mediterranean suggest that human diet changed 40,000-50,000 years ago. People switched from easy-to-catch shellfish and tortoises to fast-moving birds and rabbits, the team also found.

Rising population density probably made food scarce. The expansion of glaciers, forcing people south, could have worsened the crush.

These findings suggest that modern human behaviour appeared simultaneously on different continents. This counters the theory that sophisticated behaviour emerged when anatomically modern humans spread out of Africa around 40,000-50,000 years ago, replacing culturally primitive Neanderthals.

“There are many signs of modernity before then,” agrees archaeologist Lawrence Straus of the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque. Cultured behaviour was an adaptation to changing conditions, he argues. Other archaeological evidence – such as sophisticated tools and art -appear in the fossil record before anatomically modern humans.

References

  1. Kuhn, S.L. et al. Ornaments of the earliest upper Paleolithic: New insights from the Levant. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 98, 7641 – 7646, (2001).

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