Dorsal and ventral views of an ancient pendant.

The pendant, seen here from two different angles, features drilled holes and around 50 smaller indentations that create an irregular curve.Credit: Antonino Vazzana/BONES Lab

A 41,500-year-old pendant carved from a piece of a woolly mammoth tusk could be the oldest known example of decorated jewellery in Eurasia made by humans, according to archaeologists.

The pendant was found in the Stajnia Cave, a natural rock shelter in southern Poland. The results of radiocarbon dating, published in Scientific Reports1, suggest that it is thousands of years older than similarly decorated artefacts from other sites. Other objects found at Stajnia Cave include a 7-centimetre-long awl — a pointed tool used for making holes — shaped from a piece of horse bone.

“Whoever made the artefacts from Stajnia clearly had language, and the nature of the artefacts themselves give us a fascinating insight into what the makers may have valued, and their world,” says Laura Basell, an archaeologist at the University of Leicester, UK. “It is reasonable to suggest that horses and mammoths were really important in their lives and these objects have meaning on multiple levels.”

Dots and holes

The oval-shaped pendant has two drilled holes and is decorated with at least 50 smaller puncture marks that create a looping curve. The true purpose and meaning of these dots remain unclear, but they could represent a counting system, lunar observations or a way of scoring kills, the researchers suggest. The spiked end of the horse-bone awl is worn, indicating extensive use.

Radiocarbon dating puts the piece of mammoth tusk used to make the pendant at between 41,730 and 41,340 years old.

The pendant itself couldn’t have been much older than its decoration — mammoth tusks were not often preserved in the region because of the local ecological conditions. “An old mammoth tusk would have been unworkable for shaping the Stajnia ornament and carving the punctate motif,” says Sahra Talamo, a chemist at the University of Bologna in Italy, who led the study. The awl was found to be around 42,000 years old.

Talamo and her colleagues compared their findings with objects featuring similar dotted patterns from archaeological sites in Germany, France, Russia and the Siberian Arctic. The pendant from Stajnia Cave pre-dates other, similarly decorated items found elsewhere by 2,000 years, the team says.

“Compared to artefacts such as lithics — chipped stone tools — finds of this kind are really pretty unusual,” says Basell. “The dates fit well with dates on the earliest musical instruments known in Europe from Germany.”

But the team’s claim that the pendant is the oldest ornate jewellery in Eurasia could prove controversial. Martin Porr, who studies rock-art archaeology at the University of Western Australia in Perth, thinks that the pendant is “highly significant and intriguing”, but says that the researchers restricted their comparisons to other artefacts that have been decorated with puncture marks, and did not include items of a similar age that could also have been used as jewellery. “It’s not helpful to view this object in relation to an origin narrative of a whole tradition,” he says.

“The pendant of Stajnia is the only decorated artefact of its kind [that has been] directly radiocarbon dated, and the comparison with the other punctuated ornaments shows it is the oldest,” says Talamo. “We do not suggest an origin of this decorative pattern in Poland — we support the hypothesis that similar decorations appeared independently across Europe.”

She adds: “Further investigations in central–eastern Europe will unveil new paths of development of personal ornaments.”