Necklaces: the Oldest Items in Humanity's Jewelry Box

In 2004, archaeologists were excavating a burial in South Africa that was dated to 75,000 years old. During their efforts, they discovered 41 mollusk shells that appeared to have been drilled and strung together. In one fell swoop, they'd more than doubled the known history of necklaces; before their find, the earliest known necklaces were "only" 35,000 years old.

Whether that dead hominid was a modern human or one of our not-quite-modern ancestors, it was clear that necklaces have long been a human favorite. While we share our love of shiny things with a few other animals (magpies and packrats leap to mind), one of the things that truly separates humans from animals is our appreciation of beauty and artistry. As simple as it may have been, that mollusk-shell necklace was an early example of that appreciation.

In the beginning...

The first necklaces were probably braided and knotted grasses that some unsung hero plaited together one day, either from an experimental urge or simple boredom. It wasn't a great cognitive leap to imagine tying the ends together and slipping it over one's neck. Whatever the case, the idea caught on, and though the prehistoric necklaces soon graduated to more durable materials, the fibers upon which they were strung (and upon which some are still strung) were still derived from handy plant materials.

Time marched on, humans made the mistake of adopting agriculture, and over time wealth began to accumulate in the hands of a relative few. One practical result of this was that those few began to want more ornate necklaces, and there arose a caste of artisans to provide them. By 2500 B.C., gold began to be used in necklaces in the great city of Ur (now part of Iraq), one of the first true state-level societies. Chokers and pendants were popular grave goods in the Royal Graves of Ur. In the later Sumerian state, beads of precious and semi-precious stones were used to form striking beaded necklaces. These styles were eventually adopted to the truly advanced societies of Ancient Egypt, who added glass to the mix and pectorals, collars, and torcs to the necklace inventory. Meanwhile, in the New World, the Incas and Aztecs were experimenting with an incredible array of gold jewelry, including necklaces.

Later on

The Ancient Greeks (after 500 B.C.) further developed the use of necklaces as ornamentation, but preferred three-dimensional pendants in the shape of seeds, heads, and acorns. Their Roman inheritors limited their jewelry use, but eventually they loosened up and started wearing gold necklaces in public, along with pendants made of shaped gemstones. Once better methods for creating gold links were invented about A.D. 200, lighter, lacier gold necklaces began to appear, and it was not uncommon to wear several necklaces at a time. This practice declined with the Dark Ages, but began to re-emerge in the Western world during the European Renaissance.

When it comes to necklaces, modern humans have inherited 75,000+ years of innovation and development. Every material has been tried, from macaroni to pure, unadulterated gold, and our legacy includes aspects of all the advances and discoveries that 5,000 generations of human ingenuity can offer. Modern necklaces serve a variety of secular, decorative, and religious purposes, and remain a versatile way to add to one's decorative wardrobe. When it comes down to it, they needn't even cost you anything; after all, the ancestral raw material is probably growing quietly out in your front yard.

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