What jewelry did people wear 120,000 years ago? Find out at Israel Museum's prehistoric exhibit

Some 120,000 years ago people used jewelry and body decoration as a form of self-identification, much like we do now.

 Tritia gibbosula and Columbella rustica shell beads Manot Cave, Levantine Aurignacian culture, 37,000–33,000 years ago, Collection of Israel Antiquities Authority (photo credit: ELIE POSNER)
Tritia gibbosula and Columbella rustica shell beads Manot Cave, Levantine Aurignacian culture, 37,000–33,000 years ago, Collection of Israel Antiquities Authority
(photo credit: ELIE POSNER)

The polished, rounded shell beads in the display case would look gorgeous hanging as a necklace from someone’s neck. They would also probably feel absolutely perfect to the touch.

And they surely did 120,000 years ago, when one of our prehistoric ancestors carefully collected these shells on the Mediterranean coast, selecting them for shape and weight, for color and size, before stringing them and fashioning them into a necklace or perhaps a belt with the largest shell in the middle, maybe for him or herself, or as a gift for someone else.

The oldest jewelry in the world to be discovered outside of Africa, the shell bead necklace was discovered in a 1970’s excavation in the Qafzeh Cave near Nazareth, some 30 km. from where they were gathered. They were the impetus for the Israel Museum’s recently opened exhibition, Adornment: Jewelry and Body Decoration in Prehistoric Times, which looks not only at the importance of jewelry and other ornaments as prehistoric objects but also at their significance to the people who created and wore them.

Although in the museum since 2011, the shell beads had never been exhibited, said Ahiad Ovadia, curator of prehistoric cultures at the museum. In 2019, a study of the beads led by Dr. Daniella Bar-Yosef Mayer of Tel Aviv University showed that microscopic signs of wear in and around the natural perforations of the clamshells, known scientifically as Glycymeris shells, indicate that they had been strung on a plant-based twine and that they rubbed against one another.

“Something in our human mind is attracted to those smooth round objects like shells and stones,” said Ovadia. “It is not by coincidence that the first ornaments were made from shells. Every kid collects those shells and brings them home to play with. It is really amazing to see this through human history.”

Burial of an infant with a strand of Dentalium shells Eynan, Natufian culture, ca. 15,000–11,700 years ago, Collection of Israel Antiquities Authority, on loan from the Upper Galilee Museum of Prehistory, Ma‘ayan Barukh. (credit: GONEN SHARON)Burial of an infant with a strand of Dentalium shells Eynan, Natufian culture, ca. 15,000–11,700 years ago, Collection of Israel Antiquities Authority, on loan from the Upper Galilee Museum of Prehistory, Ma‘ayan Barukh. (credit: GONEN SHARON)

When the Qafzeh Cave shell beads were returned to the museum, and Ovadia held what at the time was considered to be the oldest jewelry in the world in his gloved hands, he knew he needed to present them to the public, he said.

Since the study, Moroccan archaeologists analyzed a set of 33 shell beads found between 2014 and 2018, dating them to between 142,000 and 150,000 years old.

“But even the Moroccan and ours will not be the last pieces of ancient prehistoric jewelry found. I assume even older jewelry will be found. We just need more time,” said Ovadia.

THAT ancient homo sapiens adorned themselves implies they were not only interested in survival or in what was functional but that they had the cognitive ability to plan and execute actions and had developed a personal and group identity, which is the origins of modern human behavior, the exhibit explains in its opening panel.

"It is not by coincidence that the first ornaments were made from shells. Every kid collects those shells and brings them home to play with. It is really amazing to see this through human history.”

Ahiad Ovadia

“The exhibit relates especially to what the people did with that jewelry. They served as amulets of course, but they were also all beautiful ornaments. They are appealing to us and were probably appealing to them,” Ovadia said. “We believe they also had some other meaning in terms of indicating gender, social status, achievements, age – sometimes all in one piece.”

A unique sense of self

Some scholars have said that ornaments are like an extension of the body as people use it to express their unique selves, added Ovadia.

“Jewelry is saying something about yourself; you are extending yourself so people can see. It is amazing to see that that already started to happen 120,000 years ago,” he said.

Some of the unique pieces on exhibit refer to personal identity and convey the idea of self-identification, much like people do with jewelry and body decoration today, he said.

“This indicates self-awareness which is a big leap forward in the cognitive ability of humans to identify themselves as unique individuals within a group. As far as we know this is an attribute unique to humans,” said Ovadia.

 Greenstone beads Various sites, Natufian, Sultanian, and Khiamian cultures, ca. 13,000–10,000 years ago Collection of Israel Antiquities Authority and Staff Officer for Archaeology – Civil Administration of Judea and Samaria. (credit: ELIE POSNER) Greenstone beads Various sites, Natufian, Sultanian, and Khiamian cultures, ca. 13,000–10,000 years ago Collection of Israel Antiquities Authority and Staff Officer for Archaeology – Civil Administration of Judea and Samaria. (credit: ELIE POSNER)

In addition, pieces exhibited also indicate that there was a group migration from Europe some 35,000 years ago and people maintained their group identification through the jewelry they wore, he said. The same type of jewelry made in Western Europe with specific shells and pendants made of animal teeth appeared during that time in the area of Israel, he said.

“People collected shells here before, but in this time period specific shell types were collected from the sea and they were exactly the same kind as were being used in Western Europe. We think there was a migration of groups coming from Europe. It is amazing they were coming here 35,000 years ago,” he said.

On the other hand, three completely different groups of bone pendants on exhibit are unique to the sites where they were found: in Mount Carmel, the Upper Galilee and in the Hula Valley, and suggests that ancient people used them to distinguish their self-identify as belonging to different groups, he said.

AWARE THAT the objects had significance for the people who created and wore them, Ovadia said that together with Tal Gur who designed the exhibition they tried to give each piece the respect it deserved, with even the smallest object getting a special display case.

They also used two long showcases and touch screens to exhibit a number of handpicked pieces to simply highlight the beauty and variations of colors and types of jewelry made in prehistoric times.

“We see through time that objects were getting more and more complex, but this is only what we see. We can’t see what is missing, and we are missing a lot of things – all the organic material they used to ornament themselves, all the scars and tattoos. I imagined those people with very vivid colors and feathers,” he said. “I think… people were very complex even back then.”

Ethnographic examples of jewelry and body ornaments from Fiji, Papua New Guinea and the Maasai people loaned from the museum’s Arts of Africa and Oceania collection by curator Yael Eshel helped fill in the gaps, he said.

The importance of jewelry and other ornaments in these ancient periods is also evident in their use as burial goods that accompanied the deceased after death. The exhibition dedicates a special chapter to burial, including the 14,000-year-old Natufian skeleton of an infant apparently wearing, or covered by, a belt made of dentalium shells exhibited for the first time outside of the Upper Galilee Museum of Prehistory in Kibbutz Ma’ayan Baruch.

“We are pretty sure those belts were valuable. We don’t know exactly why the belt was put there but we think that it was attached to a piece of clothing and could have been worn during the baby’s lifetime, but we also speculate that the grieving parents put their own belt inside the grave with their baby,” said Ovadia.

The exhibit also considers the technology needed to manufacture some of those jewelry pieces and Ovadia worked with Micha Hanuna, a specialist in ancient crafts and way of life, to present these technologies in a short film.

“You then understand that even those simple-looking objects like ostrich eggshell beads, of which we have thousands on exhibit, are really hard to produce and are highly sophisticated pieces. You needed to be knowledgeable and skillful in those practices,” said Ovadia. “They invested a lot of time in producing those jewelry pieces and if you invest a lot of time, it is probably a meaningful thing. Jewelry meant something to them and they wanted to display it and to convey complex nonverbal messages.”

Adornment: Jewelry and Body Decoration in Prehistoric Times runs until March 15, 2023.