Jerimalai cave (East Timor): Oldest jewellery in East Asia is crafted 37,000-year-old shell
Proof of ancient skills - Michelle Langley, Australian National University
Shell jewellery and ornaments up to 42,000 years old, discovered in East Timor, have overturned long-held assumptions that the first inhabitants of South-East Asia were culturally unsophisticated.
The finds represent the oldest evidence of ornament and jewellery-making in the region.
The most ancient example of shell jewellery is 82,000 years old and was found in Morocco, although some shell art may date even further back. As humans migrated out of Africa, shell jewellery started appearing in the European archaeological record from about 50,000 years ago.
Humans moved into East Asia around the same time, but the area has yielded few examples of personal ornamentation of such antiquity. Some researchers had speculated that the early settlers abandoned crafts and so were less technologically advanced than their European counterparts.
Now Michelle Langley of the Australian National University in Canberra and her colleagues have made finds in the Jerimalai cave of East Timor that refute that idea. One was the shell of an Oliva sea snail (pictured on the right of the image at the top), dated to 37,000 years back – making it the oldest piece of jewellery ever found in the region.
A hole in the top of the shell suggests that it was used in a necklace or bracelet. Marks on the side were characteristic of rubbing against adjacent shell beads, while traces of red ochre may have come from contact with body paint.
Experiments with modern Oliva shells showed that the natural wear and tear could not have formed the hole.
Skills handed down
Close similarities with younger shell beads found in the same area hint that jewellery-making skills were passed from one generation to the next, says Langley.
Separately, the team is publishing details of ornaments made from the shell of Nautilus pompilius, some of which they dated indirectly to as far back as 42,000 year ago. Found in the same cave, the artefacts show traces of drilling, pressure flaking, grinding and staining with red ochre.
The team previously found 42,000-year-old tuna bones in the Jerimalai cave, suggesting that the inhabitants had developed some of the oldest known deep-sea fishing methods.
“All of this together shows that the people who lived in Jerimalai were very well adapted to the coast – they understood the environment, they knew what was there, and the best way to get it,” says Langley. “It was not a cultural backwater as once thought.”
A lack of excavations partly explains why fewer relics have been uncovered in this part of the world, says Ian McNiven of Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. “Because Europe has such a long history of large scale archaeological excavation of ice age sites, they have found the bulk of the world’s known ice age jewellery.”
The more we excavate in the region, the more interesting artefacts are coming to light, he says. For example, a 30,000-year-old shell necklace was recently found in Australia.
Langley believes that our understanding of the region’s history will continue to shift. “Lots of new excavations are being undertaken, so we think it will be a completely different picture in 10 years’ time.”
Journal reference: Journal of Human Evolution, DOI: 10.1016/j.jhevol.2016.04.005