Beads made from ostrich eggs buried in the Siberian cave around 2,000 generations ago reveal amazing artistic (and drilling) skills of our long-ago ancestors.
A fascinating collection of jewellery made of ostrich eggshells is being assembled by archeologists working in the world famous Denisova cave in Altai region. Ostriches in Siberia? 50,000 years ago?
Yes, it seems so. Or, at least, their eggshells made it here somehow.
In a month that has seen disclosures of the fossil of a tropical parrot in Siberia from at least five million years ago in the Miocene era, this elegant Paleolithic chic shows that our deep history (some 2,000 generations ago, give or take) contains many unexpected surprises.
Pictured here are finds from a collection of beads in the Denisova cave, perfectly drilled, and archeologists say they have now found one more close by, with full details to be revealed soon in a scientific journal. They are in no doubt that the beads are between 45,000 and 50,000 years old in the Upper Paleolithic era, making them older than strikingly similar finds 11,500 kilometres away in South Africa.
Maksim Kozlikin, researcher at the Institute of Archeology and Ethnography, Novosibirsk, said of the Siberian ostrich egg beads: ‘This is no ordinary find. Our team got quite excited when we found the bead.
‘For that time, we consider this to be an exquisite jewellery work of a very talented artist.’
The skills and techniques used some 45,000 to 50,000 years ago are remarkable and more akin to the Neolithic era, dozens of millennia later.
He believes the beads may have been sewn into clothing – or formed part of a bracelet or necklace.
The latest discovery ‘is one centimetre in diameter, with a hole inside that is slightly wider than a millimetre,’ he said.
‘One version is that the egg shells could have been exported from Trans-Baikal or Mongolia with the beads manufactured here.
‘Another possibility is that the beads were purchased elsewhere and delivered to the Altai Mountains perhaps in an exchange.
‘Whichever way we look at it, it shows that the people populating the Denisova Cave at the time were advanced in technologies and had very well-established contacts with the outside world.’
Today ostriches are an exotic import into a couple of areas in Siberia, but were they endemic 50,000 years ago, or were they brought from afar?
Kozlikin acknowledged there are far more questions than answers.
‘We don’t know if they (prehistoric people) decorated elements of men, or women, or children or their clothing with these beads,’ he said. ‘We do not know where the beads were sewn on the clothing, if they were. Did they only decorate wealthy members of society? Were they a sign of a special religious status, or did they signify that the person had more authority than the others?
‘How did the beads, or the material for them get to Siberia? How much did they cost?
‘What we do know for sure is that the beads were found in the Denisova Cave’s ‘lucky’ eleventh layer, the same one where we found the world’s oldest bracelet made from rare dark green stone. All finds from that layer have been dated as being 45,000 to 50,000 years old.
‘We had three other beads found in 2005, 2006 and 2008. All the beads were discovered lying within six metres in the excavation in the eastern gallery of the cave.
‘We cannot say if they all belonged to one person, but visually these beads look identical.’
Yet they also appear similar to ostrich egg beads found in an area called Border Cave in South Africa that have been dated up to 44,000 years old. The site is in the foothills of the Lebombo Mountains in KwaZulu-Natal.
Dr Lucinda Backwell, senior researcher in the palaeo-anthropology department at Wits University, has previously highlighted how this African proto-civilisation ‘adorned themselves with ostrich egg and marine shell beads’.
The Siberian beads is the latest discovery from the Denisova Cave which is possibly the finest natural repository of sequential early human history so far discovered anywhere on the planet.
The cave was occupied by Homo sapiens along with now exyinct early humans – Neanderthals and Denisovans – for at least 288,000 years, and excavations have been underway here for three decades, with the prospect of many exciting finds to come in future.
In August we revealed the discovery of the world’s oldest needle in the cave – still useable after 50,000 years.
Crafted from the bone of an ancient bird, it was made not by Homo sapiens or even Neanderthals, but by Denisovans.
Professor Mikhail Shunkov, head of the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography in Novosibirsk, said: ‘It is the most unique find of this season, which can even be called sensational. It is a needle made of bone.
‘As of today it is the most ancient needle in the word. It is about 50,000 years old.’