Your choice in jewelry can say a lot about you: That you follow a particular religion, graduated with an engineering degree, or you’re just a fan of the latest viral aesthetic.
Now, new research shows that jewelry was just as important for distinguishing different cultures in ancient Europe as it is for signaling your allegiance to a particular group today.
The study, published in Nature Human Behaviour, reveals the existence of nine distinct groups that were lost to time and haven’t conclusively shown up in genetic data. Through the study of ancient artifacts, researchers were able to identify previously-unknown cultures living across Europe between 34,000 and 24,000 years ago, showing the power of these artifacts in writing our complex human histories.
The study focused on the people archeologists previously believed all belonged together as the Gravettians, Ice Age hunters-gatherers that braved bitter cold to create some of our most iconic artifacts today. These include voluptuous statues such as the Venus at Willendorf .
In the study, researchers from France created and analyzed a database of more than 130 personal ornaments from Gravettian burial and housing sites across Europe. These pieces included carved ivory pendants or amber beads, coral, human or bear bone ornaments and barnacle or bison bones.
They grouped ornaments according to their visual similarities, and then looked for the places where the pieces were found. They divided them up into smaller groups. Finally, they ran two different mathematical analyses to confirm that their groupings were valid.
The research team found that certain pieces of jewelry were clustered in various locations and represented nine different cultural groups. Jack Baker, the study’s co-author, told Motherboard via email that there was a clear divide between Eastern Europeans, who preferred jewelry made of ivory, stones, and teeth, and Western Europeans, who liked teeth and shells.
Other recent DNA and archeological evidence had hinted that Gravettians may in fact be a number of different people groups, representing different populations or technical abilities; this latest study puts the proverbial nail in the ancient coffin. Baker said that “our results are very similar to DNA evidence, but that we’ve shown that different genetic groups sometimes wore identical things or that the same genetic group wore same thing.”
“There are some discrepancies between the genetic data and cultural data associated with ornaments,” said Cosimo Posth, an archeologist from Universitat Tubingen who wasn’t involved in the study. For example, he points out that the southern Europe Gravettian groups were more similar to the western European groups than to the eastern ones, according to the ornament analysis, whereas the DNA evidence he and his team collected says the opposite. “This is to be expected because obviously different peoples can wear similar ornaments and similar peoples can wear different ornaments, as we see in this case.”
In Posth’s study, he compared DNA evidence with mortuary practices and found good agreement between the two. This is an indication that certain aspects of culture have stronger connections or less strong links with genetic information. “It seems that certain aspects of a population’s culture are more dictated by fashion such as ornaments and others are more related to biological connections such as mortuary practices.”
Some experts say that archeology has come to over-rely on genetic evidence when it comes to painting a picture of our historic past. When trying to better understand the paleolithic culture, authors stress that it is important to include both biological and personal data.
Jewelry doesn’t serve any survival function, unlike other ancient artifacts like spearheads or pottery, so archeologists think it was purely to communicate traits or milestones like reaching a certain age or family ties. Baker, a doctoral researcher at Universite Bordeaux, explained that jewelry was once used as a way to communicate social and cultural data. “What you wear and how you wear it is a clear and unambiguous signal to others showing which group you belong to. Also, within groups it could show social status–again much like today!”
The messages people alluded to by wearing ornaments changed over time, but some symbols that represented the human body remained relatively unchanged, the study found.
The findings confirmed a theoretical framework known as isolation-by-distance, where people who are closer together geographically will share the same culture by sharing or trading artifacts. This theory predicts other factors such as language, topography or environment will play a small role in the creation of long-lasting boundaries between groups.
Even though the materials used to make these ornaments depended on where people lived, it was still a matter of what they had available. But ultimately, it was culture driving which items they picked from the environment, not the environment dictating what they wore.
The post Scientists Discover Stunning Evidence of Multiple Lost Prehistoric Societies appeared first on VICE.