January 27, 2022

This decorated mammoth ivory pendant is 41,500 years old

This decorated mammoth ivory pendant is 41,500 years old
This decorated mammoth ivory pendant is 41,500 years oldThis decorated mammoth ivory pendant is 41,500 years old
This decorated mammoth ivory pendant is 41,500 years old
Talamo et al. 2021

While our species was spreading across Eurasia and briefly sharing a continent with the last of the Neanderthals, someone took the time to carefully shape an oval pendant out of mammoth ivory, then decorated it with a looping dotted line. The pendant, unearthed at Stajnia Cave in Poland, was recently radiocarbon dated to around 41,500 years old. That makes it the oldest known example of a Paleolithic fashion that reached from France to Siberia between 42,000 and 30,000 years ago.

An ancient ivory pendant

Archaeologists excavating the cave found the ivory pendant broken into two pieces. When reassembled, the fragments form most of an oval, with one end still broken and missing. About 50 puncture marks dot its surface, forming a sharply curved, looping shape. The pendant’s edges are smooth and rounded, and although its surface is cracked and weathered after tens of thousands of years in the ground, it’s easy to see that it must once have been an elaborate, lovely piece of jewelry—or, as archaeologists say, “portable art.”

Today, we have no way to know what the dotted curving lines on the mammoth ivory pendant meant to the people who made and wore the object. Those details are lost to us, but University of Bologna paleoanthropologist Sahra Talamo and her colleagues suggest hunting tallies or notations about the passing of lunar phases or cycles.

Under a scanning electron microscope, the little puncture marks have V-shaped cross-sections, and their width and depth varies a bit. The result looks as if the ancient artisan who poked the dotted lines onto the ivory used a sharp flint tool with a slightly irregular edge, according to Talamo and her colleagues. And a drill, probably bone, helped make two round holes all the way through the slice of ivory, one near the center of each the long side of the oval.

Archaeologists found the ivory pendant in the same layer of sediment as a broken awl made of horse bone, which dated to 42,200 years old; mass spectrometry helped identify the species of bone in each artifact. Talamo and her colleagues say the people who made and used these objects lived at the cave only ephemerally. But the pendant suggests they shared at least some cultural connection with people who lived as far away as Siberia.

Paleolithic fashion trends

At a cave in Germany, a similar pattern of curving dotted lines adorns the back side of a human figurine carved between 38,800 and 40,200 years ago. A small handful of French sites have artifacts with similar motifs as old as 40,700 years and as recent as 30,800 years ago. Ivory beads and a baton from a site east of Moscow were decorated with similar patterns of puncture marks between 34,800 and 33,500 years ago. And the same motif adorns ivory headpieces and bone needles at a 32,400 to 30,800-year-old site in Siberia.

The Stajnia pendant is the oldest example so far of ivory decorated with dotted curves, by about 2,000 years. Talamo and her colleagues suggest that its presence could shed a bit more light on cultural innovations—like new decorative motifs, new kinds of tools, and other ideas—spread across vast swaths of Eurasia during the period called the Initial Upper Paleolithic. At the very least, the Stajnia pendant’s age may give archaeologists a reason to rethink the idea that the mountains of southwestern Germany were the hotbed of new Eurasian culture at the time.