In 2010, researchers excavated an ivory pendant from an abandoned Polish cave. Pierced with patterns reminiscent of lunar cycles and mathematics, the origin of the artifact escaped archaeologists – until now. An international team of scientists has just declared the relic to be 41,500 years old.
That makes it the earliest ornate piece of jewelry ever found in Eurasia, and a wonderful reminder that the merits of art are timeless. Pictures and details of the discovery were published Thursday in the journal Scientific Reports.
But in addition to its aesthetic value, this ancient pendant also marks the first evidence of post-Neanderthal civilization in the Polish region, thereby enriching our textbooks with new data on the movement of early human populations.
“It was not expected to have any evidence of early Homo sapiens in this cave because it was somehow seen as a Neanderthal cave,” said Sahra Talamo, lead author of the study. “This kind of shows the next step in development.”
The history of the pendant began 11 years ago when scientists excavated two fragments of it in Poland’s Stajnia cave. Each piece is made of mammoth bone and has unique looping designs etched with a dot-like sequence. There are two holes on the decoration, which were probably used to attach a kind of string to make a necklace.
“When I saw it, I was shocked,” Talamo said of his first encounter with the object.
The confusion came from its location in a stratigraphic layer of the cave attributed to Neanderthals. The tools of the human ancestors, and even their teeth, had already been discovered there. But according to Talamo, it was peculiar to connect the jewelry with the early people because of the dotted decorations. Such works of art are typical of Homo sapiens, who lived after the Neanderthal era and are thought to have engaged in more complicated creative endeavors.
The Neanderthals had their own jewelry, but it was not nearly as extensive as the newly found pendant. Armed with a host of questions, Talamo decided to investigate the matter.
Talamo is an expert in radiocarbon dating, a method that uses a carbon isotope to determine the age of organic matter. See, the pendant is not from the Neanderthals. It probably just migrated to a lower layer of the cave, although it was made by later generations from the early Upper Paleolithic era.
Because of its rarity, she also suggests that these relics were probably not common objects of Homo sapiens. Maybe it could have been some kind of status symbol?
Interestingly, the remains of the pendant were found along with an old awl or a small pointed tool used to pierce holes. Coincidence? Well, probably. The team realized that the awl dates back 500 years before the creation of the pendant, and in both cases it was probably too “soft” to make the dot-like markings in the bone. This finding is also a result of Talamo’s radiocarbon dating technique.
Unlocks the past and preserves history
Typically, radiocarbon dating is seen as invasive because it requires disrupting a physical part of the object being examined. As Talamo puts it, it is a “destructive method”.
But for the purpose of this study, she invented a new way of dating radiocarbon. It takes only a small piece of the artifact to arrive at an accurate result, while preserving almost all the delicate art, teeth, or tools being examined.
“I tried to develop this method because I want to destroy as little as possible,” Talamo said, but “start combining this puzzle of human evolution with a genuine piece of the puzzle. “
In the future, Talamo’s new technology can be used for other fossils or artifacts. She hopes to be able to apply it to old jewelry found in France and Germany, for example, but believes it could help decode valuable items worth studying.
A future queue of such items could include similarly decorated ornaments, and then move to figurines and weapons. The possibilities are endless, which Talamo hopes will prove that radiocarbon dating can be done in a careful way by any team across the globe – a particularly important feeling, she says, because archeology requires a great perspective.
“You have to have a great team with different minds, different opinions, different disciplines working together for the same goal,” she stressed. “This will make it stronger – the evidence that we will bring to the world.”