It’s not often you can go shopping and not see beads which are claimed by the seller to be the “latest thing”. That’s probably just what people were thinking when they started making beads over 100,000 years ago! Recent findings have revealed that beads have been part of human life for that long, if not longer.

Recent examination of beads excavated in the early 1900′s from sites in Israel and Algeria have shown the beads to date from between 100,000 to 135,000 years ago, a finding which pushes the previous earliest known date of 75,000 years back quite some distance in human history. These finding are extremely elemental in building our view of our species history for many reasons, the most important being that it shows beyond doubt that humans were thinking symbolically much longer than previously supposed.

The first beads that we know of were shells. Perforations in shells are often from natural causes such as parasites, but humans still had to think of a means to string them together which shows their ability to use chords – and to tie knots or make clasps. Because these shells were found in areas that they would not occur naturally, we know that early people sought them purposely and possibly even traded for them. We also know that these early bead makers had a sense of self and an idea of self adornment, were thinking symbolically, and had an understanding of art.

These points and other factors about beads and bead making also reveal that human social units were much more complex at this time than previously realized as well. Beads throughout history have been used to show social association or class, as an indication of wealth or prestige, as gifts, for beautification, and for currency meaning that complex social units existed from the beginning of bead crafting. Bead materials, bead crafting, and finished product has been an important indication of intra-cultural crafting trade since the earliest of bead making cultures as beads of materials from far away lands were seemingly the most significant to a culture’s people and carried the most importance and prestige within a group.

As time went on more and harder materials began being used for bead making. These items included seeds, teeth, bone, eggshells and ivory. Holes were drilled using the method of rotation. By 40,000 years ago stone was being used for bead work. By 28,000 years ago beads had become quite elaborate masterpieces and true marvels of skill mastership.

As civilizations flourished, so did the art of bead making. Today we still value our beads, whether they are an expensive string of pearls or just a few colorful ceramic baubles. Examples of beads from around the world testify that in the vast history of humans, no civilization was, or is, complete without beads.

2010 Sally Taylor
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Author: Sally Taylor
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