Beads of the Acheulian of Bedford, England, among the earliest in the world.

Pleistocene beads and pendants can tell us a great deal about both the technology and the culture of their makers and users. Technologically they illustrate not only the ability to drill through brittle or very hard materials, but also they imply the use of cordage. The very essence of a bead or pendant is to be threaded onto a string, in antiquity it would simply have been pointless to perforate a small object for a purpose other than to pass a string though it. However, the use of cordage also suggests the use of knots, because a string needs to be closed to form a loop to be effective. Although the ends of a string may be joined by means other than a knot, e.g. by the use of adhesive or by plaiting, these alternative means are either impracticable or they are technologically even more complex than the use of knotting (Warner and Bednarik 1996). The diachronic availability of Pleistocene remains of cordage (Leroi-Gourhan 1982; Nadel et al. 1994; Pringle 1997) is of no relevance to the issue, because that class of material evidence obviously possesses an exceptionally high taphonomic lag time (Bednarik 1994b). Therefore, what beads tell us about the technology of the people who used them is well in excess of deductions concerning their manufacture.

The technological deductions beads permit us are of great interest, but of more importance are the cultural and cognitive deductions they make possible. Beads can be used in a number of ways or for several purposes; they provide various forms of information about the wearer and his or her status in society. Availability for marriage, political status, state of mourning might be such possible symbolic meanings. To explain them simply as body adornment is almost certainly an oversimplification. Even if vanity were the motivation for wearing such items, stating this explains not why they are perceived as ‘decorative’. The concept itself is anthropocentric, we do not assume that other animals perceive the information imparted by the beads as meaningful. In human culture, however, various forms or levels of meaning may be encoded in such objects, as well as in other kinds of body adornment (tattoos, body painting, cicatrices, infibulations, anklets, armbands etc.). In ethnography, beads sewn onto apparel or worn on necklaces may signify complex social, economic, ethnic, ideological, religious or emblemic meanings, all of which are only accessible to a participant of the culture in question. To name just one example: beads or pendants may function as charms, they may be a means of protection against evil spells or spirits.

While none of this information is archaeologically recoverable, all of it refers to a level of cultural sophistication most archaeologists would not currently be prepared to concede to humans prior to about 35 000 years ago. Hundreds of such Lower and Middle Palaeolithic objects are reported in the literature, although there is often no reliable evidence that the perforation is anthropogenic. Some materials can be perforated by natural processes. For instance, bones can be chewed through by animal canines or partially digested by stomach acids, while mollusc shells are commonly perforated by parasitic organisms. But while it is preferable to rely only on specimens bearing clear evidence of human work when dealing with a period from which bead use has not as yet been conclusively demonstrated, it is to be emphasised that the perforation of a bead or pendant certainly does not need to be man-made, as d’Errico and Villa (1997) erroneously assume. Naturally perforated objects are commonly used in ethnographic specimens (as are perishable materials) and it seems likely that such natural beads were also used in the past. Indeed, the earliest beads ever used quite possibly had natural perforations.

Small perforated objects of the Pleistocene may have been beads or pendants, or they could have been quanging tools, pulling handles or buckles as reported ethnographically (Boas 1888: Figs 15, 17, 121d; Kroeber 1900: Fig. 8; Nelson 1899: Pl. 17). However, most of the utilitarian objects of this type are not only of a quite typical shape or design, they exhibit specific wear traces and material properties. Small circular objects with central perforation are considered to be beads, especially when they occur repeatedly. Similarly, objects such as animal teeth, perforated near one end (near the root), are not thought to be pulling handles, nor are objects that are too fragile to function as such utilitarian equipment (e.g. ostrich eggshell beads). Evidence that a bead was drilled with a stone tool includes a distinctive bi-conical and ‘machined’ section and sometimes rotation striae. The wear of pendants can often be observed on archaeological specimens, including those made of stone (Bednarik 1997b), and is also quite typical.

The earliest mention of possible beads of the Lower Palaeolithic relates to the first Palaeolithic tools ever reported, from the very type site of the Acheulian. In the famous paper by Prestwich (1859), in which he recognised the authenticity of the St. Acheul stone tools Jacques Boucher de Perthes had been collecting for many years, the occurrence of possible beads of a fossilised sponge (Coscinopora globularis) is noted. In some of them the hole seems ‘to have been enlarged and completed’ (Prestwich 1859: 52). Smith (1894: 272-6) has reported about 200 specimens of the very same species from another Acheulian site, Bedford in England (see image above). Keeley (1980: 164), with his splendid experience in the microscopic examination of very early material, thinks that ‘there is no doubt that some of these fossils show artificial enlargement of their natural orifices’. Marshack (1991) confirms Smith’s finding that organic residues occur in the holes of some specimens.

My microscopic examination of 325 specimens (in press) has shown that many bear not only work traces, but also that they show extensive wear facets that took years to form. However, the specimens have been incorrectly described as Coscinopora globularis, they are in fact Porosphaera globularis Phillips 1829 (pers. comm. Jeroen Bos).

Besides France and England, circular, discoid fossil casts have been found at another Acheulian site, Gesher Benot Ya’aqov, Israel. They are crinoid columnar segments of Millericrinus sp. (Goren-Inbar et al. 1991). Finally, a series of disc beads laboriously made from ostrich eggshell has been excavated and dated to about 200 000 years BP at yet another Acheulian site, El Greifa E near Ubari, Libya (Bednarik 1997a). Initially only three specimens were recovered, but more have been found since.

Among the perhaps earliest objects with indisputably human-made perforations we know of are the two perforated pendants from the Repolust Cave in Styria, Austria. One is a wolf incisor, very expertly drilled near its root, the second is a flaked bone point, roughly triangular and perforated near one corner (Mottl 1951; Bednarik 1997a, 2001b). They were excavated with undated Lower Palaeolithic remains thought to be around 300 000 years old.

In replicating the three Acheulian beads initially excavated in Libya it was found that their consistency in size and the near-perfect rounding of all preserved edges, internal and external, suggests the use of a standardised manufacturing process (Bednarik 1997a). Their roundness can be obtained only by constant checking of the shape during the final abrading process, using not just a developed sense of symmetry, but possessing a clear concept of a geometric form. It is the outcome of a distinctive abstract construct of form — a concept-mediated, geometrically perfect product.

Moreover, it is the result of a determined effort to produce best-quality work, and to make the beads as small as practicable. The most parsimonious explanation for both the size and the form of these objects is that these characteristics reflect a developed abstract value system and a concept of perfection, and thus a considerable social complexity in the society that made and used these objects. It seems impossible to account for the empirical characteristics of the evidence without assuming a cultural impetus placing value and meaning on such perfect forms, and on an utmost standard of craftsmanship. In this way we can extract much information from some types of palaeoart finds, leading to the formulation of reasonable propositions about the cognitive, cultural and social capabilities of the hominids concerned. This information has a direct bearing on what we can deduce from the earliest forms of rock art we have managed to recover (Bednarik 2001c).


R. G. Bednarik 2002

References for portable palaeoart