In 2010, archaeologist Mikołaj Urbanowski found an ornately decorated pendant made from a mammoth bone in Poland’s Stajnia Cave. Working with colleagues, Urbanowski has now discovered the age of this ancient piece of jewellery – around 41,500 years.
This makes it the earliest known piece of decorated jewellery in Eurasia, and ties it to the earliest arrivals of Homo sapiens in Europe.
The pendant, which was found next to an awl, has 50 puncture marks in an irregular looping shape, and two holes. In their paper, published in Scientific Reports, the authors suggest that these holes could represent a hunting tally.
“This piece of jewellery shows the great creativity and extraordinary manual skills of members of the group of Homo sapiens that occupied the site,” says co-author Wioletta Nowaczewska of Wrocław University, Poland.
“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 researchers used radiocarbon dating to figure out the pendant’s age, which was pinpointed at 41,500 years.
“Determining the exact age of this jewellery was fundamental for its cultural attribution, and we are thrilled with the result,” says lead author Sahra Talamo, director of the BRAVHO radiocarbon lab at Bologna University, Italy.
“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.”
This mammoth-bone jewellery discovery has interesting implications for our understanding of early humans in Europe.
“The ages of the ivory pendant and the bone awl found at Stajnia Cave finally demonstrate that the dispersal of Homo sapiens in Poland took place as early as in Central and Western Europe,” says co-author Andrea Picin from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Germany. “This remarkable result will change the perspective on how adaptable these early groups were.”
In their paper, the researchers reiterated the importance of radiocarbon dating to learn more about these Palaeolithic H. sapiens.
“If we want to seriously solve the debate on when mobiliary art emerged in Palaeolithic groups, we need to radiocarbon date these ornaments, especially those found during past fieldwork or in complex stratigraphic sequences,” says Talamo.
Ellen Phiddian is a science journalist at Cosmos. She has a BSc (Honours) in chemistry and science communication, and an MSc in science communication, both from the Australian National University.
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