From teenage social media stars to wizened old darts players, many of us are partial to a bit of bling.


Now, according to a study carried out by researchers from Germany, Italy, and Poland, it seems our ancient ancestors were too.

The researchers used radiocarbon dating to determine that an intricately decorated ivory pendant found in a cave among animal bones is 41,500 years old.

The object is the earliest known evidence of humans decorating jewellery to be found in Eurasia and could represent the emergence of the behaviour in human evolution, the researchers say.

The pendant was first unearthed in 2010 during an excavation that took place in Stajnia Cave in southern Poland – a site known to have previously been inhabited by groups of Neanderthals and Homo sapiens.

The team used cutting-edge 3D scanning and modelling techniques to virtually reconstruct the pendant and reveal its full form – including the decorative pattern punched into its surface made up of 50 puncture marks that form an irregular looping curve, and two complete holes.

“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”, said co-author Dr Wioletta Nowaczewska of Wrocław University.

As yet, the team have been unable to determine exactly, if anything, the pattern is supposed to represent.

“If the Stajnia pendant’s looping curve indicates a lunar analemma [a diagram depicting the movement of the Moon in the sky] or kill scores will remain an open question,” Nowaczewska added.

They now plan to carry out detailed analyses on other ivory objects found in Stajnia Cave. Studies of other sites in Poland are currently underway and promise to yield more insights into the strategies of production of personal ornaments in Central-Eastern Europe.

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Jason Goodyer
Jason GoodyerCommissioning editor, BBC Science Focus

Jason is the commissioning editor for BBC Science Focus. He holds an MSc in physics and was named Section Editor of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors in 2019. He has been reporting on science and technology for more than a decade. During this time, he's walked the tunnels of the Large Hadron Collider, watched Stephen Hawking deliver his Reith Lecture on Black Holes and reported on everything from simulation universes to dancing cockatoos. He looks after the magazine’s and website’s news sections and makes regular appearances on the Instant Genius Podcast.