A Short History of Beads

Adornment and body decoration is unique to the human species. No other animal wears clothes, jewellery or make up. Only people scar their skin to become a member of a community or tribe, a gang or a secret society. Some of the markings are rather drastic, like chopping off the first joint of a finger, and a symbol like that might turn into a stigma at a later time. These body markings often work like an identity card. The members can be identified by the symbols they carry, and like tattoos and scarring, are nearly impossible to remove. These can also be a symbol of rank or status in the community.

Jewellery is a gentler form of adornment. The first necklaces were made 40,000 years ago in La Guina, in present day France. The cave men strung bear, hyena, wolf and reindeer teeth into a necklace, hoping to gain some of these animals' qualities, maybe even to be able to communicate with them.

This was the time of the late ice age, when the climate was changing back and forth between bitter cold and warm periods. Animals in large herds were migrating for food and water. Hunting was a dangerous business, but it was made safer by hunters co-operating in larger groups. Maybe these necklaces were the first symbol of a hunting group by which the members could identify each other, maybe they were worn for good fortune, or even to heal an injury. Oldest North American beads were found in Tule Springs, in Nevada, and date back to 11 000 BC.

Through out the centuries beads were thought to be magical. They were used as grave offerings, believed to be a link to the after world. Small pebbles and beads were put in jars as offerings to the dead, who in turn could return the favour by telling the living about the movements of game and the arrival of rains or droughts. In the graves of Ban Chien, a 6000 year old culture in Thailand, archaeologists have found millions of small glass beads, that are thought to symbolise rice grains, bringing the request of good harvests to the ancestors.

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