The Black Origins of Jewelry

In the 365 Days of Real Black History Calendar, Robert Bailey notes: “Bling culture has a long history. Gold teeth and jewelry go back thousands of years. A 16th century traveler visited the central African kingdom of Kanem-Borno and commented that even the Emperor’s dogs had “chains of the finest gold.”

Seems that jewelry too, is part of a cultural continuum between African people and their kin in North America. But how old is our interest in bedazzling ourselves with jewels and assorted flyness?

In June of 2007, an international team of archaeologists dug up the oldest jewelry in the world. Where? Africa of course!  In eastern Morocco, where Africans have built settlements for over 100,000 years ago. The tiny shells were painted with red ochre and pierced with amazing precision, so they could be strung together as a necklace or bracelet. These beads were 82,000 years old!

What was also significant was that the shells come from a genus of marine snail called Nassarius, which is not native to the Moroccan shoreline. The nearest place where the snails live is an island off Tunisia that lies more than 800 miles away, suggesting that the beads were brought an incredible distance because of their cultural value, or they were used in trade between those two areas. In other words, 82,000 f*ckin years ago, African people were trading precious materials across 800 mile wide international business networks of merchants and jewelers. Okay.

What I know is this. Similar cultural signs, such as specialized tools and personal decoration, didn’t arrive in Europe until around 40,000 years ago.  In June of 2006, the same team dug up beads made from snail shells at sites in Israel (100-135,000 years old, which would accompany the first “African exodus” out of Northeast Africa) and in Algeria, also north Africa (35,000 years old).[i] Still, researcher Nicholas Barton noted, “Shells from other sites may turn out to be even older, and we may well be looking at ornamentation beyond a hundred thousand years ago.”

Of course we are. Robert G. Bednarik notes:

The idea that the advent of personal ornamentation coincides with that of the Aurignacian is attributable only to insufficient knowledge of the relevant material. Drilled animal teeth and other objects that are several times as old as that ‘transition’ (up to 300,000 years have been known to exist for many decades.[ii]

According to Bednarik, by 300,000 years ago, jewelry can found throughout the world.[iii] In fact, jewelry was just one element of a cultural paradigm that valued “style” as a complement to substance, and emphasized “branding” before there was such a thing as a corporate brand name. Refer back to the tools and artifacts developed by the earliest humans and you’ll see it there. We used to mark our stone axes and gourds with fly geometric designs, marking who we were and what people we belonged to. We still retain many of these ancient symbols today. Back then, rocking those designs was high fashion. Your jewels just took it to the next level. Imagine that chain of turquoise stones with a red robe on, trimmed in gold borders with strings of white shells so small they look like grains of rice. That was just what the regular dude wore. We always been fly.

Move a little further into the archaeological record and check out the beads we wore. We walked or sailed hundreds of miles to trade our decorated hand-axes (prehistoric status symbols) for some designer ostrich beads. By the time we got into Paleolithic Europe (about 50,000 years ago), we were draped in leather and fur, with hundreds of beads on a chain, a big Venus medallion hanging from it, and thousands more beads studding the clothes we wore. To top it all off, you shoulda seen our grills.

The Origins of the Gold Grill

To this day, indigenous people throughout the world still modify their teeth in a variety of ways. Some file them into sharp points, others whiten them, and still others add gold and jewels. Yes, we had the original gangster grills…five thousand years ago. From ancient Peru to Egypt to China, there are ancient skulls possessing teeth that have either been encased in gold or studded with precious stones.

In one stand-out case, the 4,500 year old remains of a Mayan male in Mexico show that he had his own teeth filed down and replaced with a complete set of teeth (top and bottom)…from a jaguar.[iv] Yes, you read that right. Jaguar. Can you imagine that? Can you imagine some dude walking around with tattoos all over his face and body, the sides of his head shaved, a cape made outta fur, and a jaguar grill in his mouth? He had a JAGUAR GRILL. It doesn’t get more gangster than that.

[i] Kate Ravilious. “Ancient Shells May be World’s Oldest Bead Jewelry,” National Geographic, June 22, 2006, http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2006/06/060622-jewelry.html

[ii] Robert G. Bednarik. “Concept-mediated Marking in the Lower Palaeolithic,” Current Anthropology, 36:4 (1995), p. 605-634.

[iii] Robert G. Bednarik, “Concept-mediated Marking in the Lower Palaeolithic,” Current Anthropology, 36: 4(1995), pp. 605-634, p. 606

[iv] “’Fang’ dentures link to skeleton.” BBC News. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/5079632.stm