Project Palaeolithic Runway

By: The Scribe on Friday, March 15, 2013

No self-respecting actress would be caught dead on the red carpet wearing the same dress two years in a row… how horrible would that be? *dramatic swoon*

Even your average high school prom queen wouldn’t wear the same dress twice, much to the dismay of Mom and Dad. But if history is any indication, this isn’t unusual behaviour—in fact, it’s been going on for tens of thousands of years!

Scientists have discovered that ancient humans were no different from the fashionista next door, with some ancient people in a South African cave avoiding fashions they considered “outdated”… 75,000 years ago!

Archaeologists consider things like necklaces and bracelets to be marks of symbolic behaviour, because they represent individual identity or indicate one’s membership in a group. In Upper Palaeolithic sites from 40,000 years ago in ancient Europe, archaeologists have found many, many necklaces and bracelets made of materials like bone, ivory, stone, mollusc shells, and even human teeth!

But 40,000 years is nothing compared to what’s come out in a study published in the Journal of Human Evolution—according to a team led by archaeologist Marian Vanhaeren (University of Bordeaux), a cache of beads found in Blombos Cave in South Africa has revealed a change in how beads were strung together between 75,000-72,000 years ago.

This period was part of something called the “Still Bay Tradition”, which included bone awls, spear points and knives, and sixty-eight types of the south African tick shell all clustered together—each shell with a single hole, indicating they likely used to be strung individually on bracelets and necklaces.

The team studied the wear on the beads, re-strung them, and subjected them to a battery of tests to mimic human wear and sweat! And within the analysis, the team discovered that the wear patterns showed the way the beads were strung didn’t last long—like all fashions, the way they were worn changed time and time again.

This was apparently the earliest “evidence of a shift in ‘social norms’ or ‘customized style’, a change that ‘parallels the many similar changes in symbolic norms observed among more recent and historically known societies’.” Did the residents of Blombos Cave change their fashion ideas on their own, or did some other group influence their concepts and preferences with their own fashions? Who knows!

Either way, the changing fashion preferences of these ancient peoples shows that this period was one of dynamically shifting cultural innovation—especially considering that soon after the Still Bay period, the fashions changed yet again to use styles of decoration made with stone and bone tools.

They were certainly a long way from Forever 21’s ever-changing stock catalogue, but you can now rest assured that your ancestors also could not wear last year’s styles… perish the thought!


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