Did you know that scientists have dated beads back to 100,000 - 135,000 years ago? In 2010, National Geographic featured a story about beads* from Israel, Algeria and Africa - made from shell by use of primitive stone tools.
Before more recent findings, scientists had only found evidence of such sophisticated production and personal decoration from 40,000 year-old sites in Europe. Previously, the theory was that a sort of creative explosion had taken place among these ancient humans -- possibly due to changes within the brain. But within the past few years, beads have been discovered from far older sites. In March, 2004, 70,000 year-old ostrich eggshell beads were discovered in Tanzania, Africa. (Read "Is Bead Find Proof Modern Thought Began in Africa?"  http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2004/03/0331_040331_ostrichman.html)
Also in 2004, 75,000 year-old perforated shells were found in a cave in South Afrrica. (Read "Oldest Jewelry? "Beads" Discovered in African Cave"  http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2004/04/0415_040415_oldestjewelry.html)
These discoveries led some scientists to conclude that humans used a symbolic way of communicating well before the supposed "creative explosion". Other scientists questioned whether the newer findings were truly beads.
The prevailing consensus today appears to be that the oldest shells indeed were used by humans -- either to adorn the dead or for bodily decoration in daily living. Some are even confident that further excavations will uncover more shell beads and show that they were a common form of ornamentation prior to 40,000 years ago.
The study and collection of ancient beads is truly fascinating -- from ancient agates and pre-columbian carvings to ancient Indus valley beads. There are ancient fish beads delicately sculpted out of jade, agates, amber and bone from South East Asia and China, and their artistry is simply amazing. Some very rare beads have values of $500,000 each! Many were made by women whose lapidary skills were incredible, and the colors of the beads they created are delightful as well.
When I consider these things, I can see what an honorable tradition modern bead-makers are following. From those who create delicately handcrafted lampwork beads, to boxwood 'ojime' bead carvers, to paper bead and vintage charm artisans, today's beadmakers can take pride in continuing the long and esteemed line of creative artisans, from the most ancient of days, to today.
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Sheila & Shannon