New research published in Nature Human Behaviour has shed light on the importance of jewelry in ancient Europe for distinguishing different cultures. The study reveals the existence of nine distinct cultural groups that lived between 34,000 and 24,000 years ago, challenging the previous assumption that all individuals belonged to a single group called the Gravettians. By analyzing over 130 personal ornaments from burial and housing sites across Europe, researchers were able to identify different cultural groups based on shared visual characteristics of the jewelry.
The study found that certain pieces of jewelry clustered together in different locations, representing the distinct cultural groups. There was a clear divide between eastern Europeans, who preferred jewelry made from ivory, stone, or teeth, and western Europeans, who favored shells and teeth. The research supports previous DNA and archaeological evidence that suggested the Gravettians were not a homogenous population but rather represented different populations or technical abilities.
Some experts argue that archaeology has become overly reliant on genetic evidence and emphasize the importance of incorporating both personal adornments and biological data to understand ancient cultures. The study acknowledges potential limitations in the dating of the ornaments due to the lack of contextual data from old excavations.
Jewelry in ancient Europe served as a means of transmitting social and cultural information, similar to its role today. The study found that the messages conveyed by ornaments changed over time, but symbols representing the human body remained relatively unchanged. The research confirmed the theoretical framework of isolation-by-distance, suggesting that geographical proximity played a significant role in cultural similarities.
The findings highlight the complex relationship between humans and their environment, with culture driving material choices rather than environmental factors dictating what individuals wore. The study contributes to a growing body of research that challenges the notion of homogeneity within ancient cultures and emphasizes the need for a multidisciplinary approach in studying our historic past.