Puzzling dot patterns: In Poland, researchers have discovered the oldest ornate jewelry in Eurasia. The around 41,500 year old pendant made of mammoth ivory is adorned with a curved row of punctiform pits and thus resembles point-decorated Stone Age objects from France and Germany. The find thus proves the wide spread of this earliest art tradition of our ancestors. However, what these dot patterns meant is unknown.
Decorating everyday objects with patterns is considered one of the earliest forms of human art. Our ancestors began to embellish bones, ivory pieces or cave walls with simple decorations around 40,000 years ago. Particularly noticeable are patterns made up of many identical points that adorn rock walls and stone objects in France, among other things. Such Stone Age dot patterns were also discovered in caves in the Swabian Alb.
What these dot patterns mean, why they appear so frequently, and when our ancestors began with this type of ornament, however, remained unclear.
Ivory pendant with dot decoration
Now a find from Poland sheds new light on these earliest human art forms. It was discovered in the Stajnia Cave in the south of Poland, a site where, in addition to Neanderthal relics, remains of early representatives of Homo sapiens were found. Among these finds was a flat, elongated piece of ivory made from a mammoth’s tusk. The shape and a hole drilled in the upper part suggest that it is a pendant.
What is special, however, is the decoration of this pendant: on the front it has a curved row of over 50 points notched into the ivory. “The points are very similar in terms of their cross-sections and shape. They were probably all made with the same tool and within a short time,” report Sahra Talamo from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig and her colleagues. This suggests that it is a deliberate ornament.
“This piece of jewelery testifies to the great creativity and the extraordinary craftsmanship of the Homo sapiens group who lived in the site,” says co-author Wioletta Nowaczewska from the University of Wrocław. “The thickness of the ivory plate is around 3.7 millimeters – the carving of the points and the holes in the trailer was carried out with astonishing precision.” The work must be done on the fresh mammoth tusk, because otherwise the material would have been too brittle.
To determine the exact age of this piece of jewelry, the research team took tiny samples of the ivory and radiocarbonised them. “Determining the exact age of this piece of jewelry was fundamental to its cultural classification,” explains Talamo. “If we want to find a solution to the debate about when mobile art first appeared in Stone Age Homo sapiens groups, we have to date these ornaments using the radiocarbon method.”
Already around 41,500 years old
The result: the ivory pendant is between 41,340 and 41,730 years old. “This makes it the oldest of its kind in all of Eurasia,” the researchers state. The pendant is also the earliest evidence of an ornament decorated with dots. “This establishes a starting date for a tradition that is closely linked to the spread of Homo sapiens in Europe,” the team said.
The discovery of such an old piece of jewelry with a dot pattern also confirms that this type of decoration was already common shortly after the arrival of our ancestors in Europe in widely separated regions: The distribution of these Stone Age dot patterns extends from southwest France over the Swabian Alb to Poland. “It’s fascinating that similar decorations appeared independently across Europe,” says co-author Adam Nadachowski of the Polish Academy of Sciences.
What do the dots mean?
But what was the purpose of the dot patterns? Were they mere ornaments with no deeper meaning or was there a meaning behind them? The answer to this has so far been highly controversial. Some archaeologists consider the dots to be purely aesthetic decoration, others see them as possible counters or even astronomical notations.
The curved row of dots on the ivory pendant from Stajnia could therefore represent the number of animals hunted by the person who wore it. On the other hand, the shape of the series is also amazingly similar to a moon analemma, as Talamo and her colleagues explain. The analemma is a shape similar to a crooked figure of eight that a celestial body such as the sun or moon draws in the sky if its position is always recorded over a long period of time at the same time of day or night.
“Whether the loop of the Stajnia trailer refers to a moon analemma or whether it is a count of animals killed in the hunt remains unsolved,” says Nadachowski. Finding this and other objects with such patterns and their exact dating can help to clarify this question. (Scientific Reports, 2021; doi: 10.1038 / s41598-021-01221-6)
Source: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology