A 41,500-year-old oval-shaped ivory pendant made from mammoth bone represents the earliest known example of ornate jewellery made by humans in Eurasia, a new study suggests.
Researchers analysed the pendant, found at the Stajnia Cave in Poland, in 2010, along with an awl tool for hole-piercing made of horse bone.
The pendant, awl and bone fragments were dated to the Early Upper Palaeolithic period (between 42,000 to 37,000 years ago).
According to the scientists, the objects are the earliest known evidence of humans decorating jewellery in Eurasia and the emergence of the symbolic behaviour in human evolution.
They used radiocarbon dating – a method for determining the age of an organic sample by measuring the amount of radioactive carbon present.
Sahra Talamo, lead author of the study and director of the Bravho radiocarbon lab at the Department of Chemistry Giacomo Ciamician at Bologna University, said: “Determining the exact age of this jewellery was fundamental for its cultural attribution, and we are thrilled of the result.
“This work demonstrates that using the most recent methodological advances in the radiocarbon method enables us to minimise the amount of sampling and achieve highly precise dates with a very small error range.
“If we want to seriously solve the debate on when mobiliary (protable) art emerged in Palaeolithic groups, we need to radiocarbon date these ornaments, especially those found during past fieldwork or in complex stratigraphic sequences.”
The pendant is decorated with more than 50 puncture marks in an irregular looping curve, and two complete holes.
The pattern of indentations, similar to later jewellery found in Europe, could represent hunting tallies or lunar notations which correspond to the monthly cycle of the moon or sun, the researchers suggest.
They also write that the presence of animal bones alongside the pendant and awl may indicate that humans were beginning to produce small and transportable art 41,500 years ago.
Co-author Wioletta Nowaczewska of Wroclaw University, Poland, said: “This piece of jewellery shows the great creativity and extraordinary manual skills of members of the group of homo sapiens that occupied the site.
“The thickness of the plate is about 3.7 millimetres showing an astonishing precision on carving the punctures and the two holes for wearing it.”
The study is published in Scientific Reports.