Welcome to Harlequin Beads!

History of Bone Beads

Bone was one of the first things early humans used for ornament. Since the local butcher shop is a recent development in human history. Most humans had to butcher their own animals. Whether wild or domestic living animals come with a full complement of meat, bones, hide, and other organs. Early humans were efficient and frugal out of necessity. Every part of the animal that could be used was used, meat for dinner, hide for clothing, shoes, and containers, fat for suet and tallow, horn and bone for tools and ornaments. Even the internal organs had their uses.Early peoples worked bone with stone tools and some of the earliest known "Venus figurines" were made of carved bone. These are among some of the earliest known ornaments. Using little more than a sharp edge of a stone as a saw and a hard piece of slate or sandstone as a grinding surface early people made a remarkable variety of beads and jewelry.Bird bones were small and hollow and they required little alteration to become beads or pendants. They can even be made into whistles, these were prized the shamans to summon or dismiss spirits. Snake vertebrae were ready made beads and just need a good cleaning before becoming a necklace. Many have been found in association with ritual paraphernalia. Deer and sheep hooves were made into noisy clackers by both the Scythic tribes of southern Russia before the birth of Christ and more recently by the American Indian tribes.What do all these examples have in common, they are associated with ritual and magic. People believed the spirit of the animal continued to influence whoever wears a part of him, especially if the bones were altered only slightly. Modern urban humans, beginning with the Romans, have lost the sense of magic that comes from being close companions to the animals that sustains them. As people became more "civilized" and had access to a local butcher shops, they also became less attuned to the source of their food and the magical influences that comes from using other animals to sustain their lives. The respect and reverence of the hunter for his prey was broken as soon as that prey was kept in a pen.Bone beads lost much of their magical influence as humanity developed towns and cities. The development of domesticated animals meant hunters were no longer reliant on the magical protection afforded by the bones of the animals they hunted. The connection between hunter and hunted was lost forever. They were relegated to being an ornament of the poor who could not afford stone or ivory beads. Today bone beads are a cottage industry in Indonesia where individual craftsmen and women make bone beads for a greater global market.


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