Bead Library: Bead History

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Who Made the First Beads? | Bead History

Who Made the First Beads?

By Beverly Fernandes

The first recognizable modern humans came out of Africa, settling in the Middle East, Asia, and Europe 40,000 or more years ago. Mostly nomadic hunters and gatherers, small bands of early humans carried literally everything they owned with them, so they had to travel light. This period, the middle of the last ice age, was cold and dry. A large portion of the world’s water was locked up in vast ice sheets that covered much of the northern half of the earth. Life was hard and survival was always in doubt. Archaeologists have found evidence that as early as 20,000 years later people weren’t just existing, they were living well. An event referred to by archaeologists as the 'Upper Paleolithic Revolution’ occurred at about this time, when people began to invent a large number of new things. These were mostly useful tools like awls and pins of bone, or ‘burins’ (drill points) made of chert or obsidian, but there were also large numbers of decorative and beautiful ornaments.

But why ornaments? One reason is that people now had time on their hands. It has been estimated the typical hunter/gatherer teams could obtain enough food for several days within five or six hours. This gave them time to think and dream and a desire to give those dreams form in tangible objects. They were becoming artists! Their art began to take the form of complex clothing, ornaments, and figurines. Burins were used to pierce wood, bone, or ivory. Needles and pins were needed for sewing. Blades were used for carving, cutting, and shaping. Those with the talent to do so could now create objects whose sole purpose was esthetic beauty. "Culture" as we now know it, was becoming a reality, the earliest Venus figurines carved in bone or stone appear at this time.

One of these Venus figures, carved in bone from Lespugue in France, shows a woman wearing a skirt made of twisted string. Another piece of evidence for early ornamentation is a clay impression of knotted string. The string had long since rotted away, but the proof of its presence remained. As soon as humans starting making string, they started to hang things on strings. One of the earliest forms of strung ornament was animal teeth with distinct grooves or notches worn into then. The notches allowed the teeth to be held firmly on a knotted string. One example of this comes from Arcy-sur-Cure, in France: A string of marmot, fox, wolf, and hyena teeth, dating from 31,000 B.C. The first beads may have been made by perforating shells, small stones, perhaps bits of carved bone, or even seeds.

Perforation was an improvement on notching. Soon our ancestors were making many kinds of modern looking beads. There were round or oval beads of bone or ivory with carved lines as decorations. There were long beads made from bird bones. Wooden beads were prized for their grain patterns or scent. Often several forms were used in combination. Carved animals of almost any material were strung as well. These abstract forms were the product of sophisticated minds and showed a self-conscious spirituality. For example we have beads carved into the form of a woman's breasts as a symbol of motherhood. Whatever the reason, even the earliest humans had a need to make and accumulate beads and make them into ornaments. They were an important aspect of human society, with great artistic and spiritual importance was attached to them.

Bibliography

A Handbook on Beads by W.G.N. van der Sleen
The History of Beads from 38,000 B.C. to the Present by Lois Sherr Dubin
The Oxford Illustrated Prehistory of Europe edited by Barry Cunliffe
The Universal Bead by Joan Mowat Erikson
Women’s Work The First 20,000 Years by Elizabeth Wayland Barber

About the Author

Beverly Fernandes has been beading since 1969. Since moving to Eugene in 1998 Bev has worked primarily with beads, her first loves have always been her husband John and beadwork. Bev works primarily with Japanese Cylinder Beads known as Delicas. They come in over 600 colors and textures, so Bev can practically paint with beads. Most pieces are worked in peyote or gourd stitch, a form of bead weaving that has been found in Egyptian tombs and has since been practiced by nearly every culture that has worked with beads. Beverly has a Bachelor of Science in Anthropology. She studies archaeology and bead history.
All article text and photos © Harlequin Beads & Jewelry unless otherwise noted.
Text and photos may not be used without permession from Harlequin Beads & Jewelry.

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In Harlequin's bead library you will find information on the history of beads, how beads are made and how beads have been used throughout the world.

Many articles include a bibliography to provide you with additional resources. Many of the beading books referenced are available at your local library.

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Harlequin Beads and Jewelry specializes in Swarovski crystal, pendants and pearls, Czech glass and seed, Japanese seed and gemstone beads, plus a full selection of stringing supplies and jewelry findings.