Pendants and beads reveal nine cultures living across the continent 30,000 years ago


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"For ice age hunters in Europe some 30,000 years ago, styles of ornaments including amber pendants, ivory bangles, and fox tooth beads may have also signaled membership in a particular culture, researchers report today in Nature Human Behaviour. The study, which compared thousands of handcrafted beads and adornments from dozens of widespread sites, suggests at least nine distinct cultures existed across Europe at this time."

"Because of the widespread locations of figurines and similarly fashioned spearpoints, archaeologists traditionally clumped all these people into a single culture known as the Gravettian, spread from what is now Portugal to Russia. More recently, though, analyses of subtle differences in stone toolmaking, funerary practices, and ancient DNA have suggested more than one group roamed the continent at this time. Could the diverse beads found from this period result from different cultures?"

"The Gravettian was not “one monolithic thing,” Baker says, but instead included several culturally distinct groups, each hewing to their own ornamental traditions. His team thinks these groups crossed paths: The team’s computer simulations suggest the patterns of bead differences most resemble a scenario in which neighboring groups occasionally swapped styles or territories. Perhaps ivory-adorned people gazed across a river and spotted a band decked in vibrant seashells: “They would have been like, ‘Oh my God! Someone completely different!’” Baker imagines. Despite those differences, some cultural and genetic exchange seems to have occurred."

"DNA from human remains excavated from Gravettian sites identified two major genetic lineages in Europe at the time: one situated around the Pyrenees Mountains, and another in central and Eastern Europe. The bead-based groups mostly accorded with these populations, but added more subdivisions and a few twists, including data for places that have yet to yield ancient DNA, such as Moldova and southern Spain.

For groups for which genetic data are available, being closely related didn’t necessarily mean they wore matching jewelry. Ancient groups living in modern-day Italy, for example, shared ancestry but some buried their dead with cowrie shells and others put fish vertebrae and ivory beads into graves. In contrast, in what’s now France and Belgium, individuals with different ancestry sported similar ornaments. These results imply somewhat porous, shifting cultural boundaries, and perhaps some adornment differences for people with special social roles."


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