ResearchBlogging.orgIt has become axiomatic that the use of adornment by humans is some sort of symbolic act, and thus is linked to the human symbolic and linguistic mind. The human symbolic and linguistic mind is the trait that we axiomatically believe to be the derived human feature … the cladistic apomorphy that makes us human (as opposed to other-ape). Therefore, the use of adornment is seen by early 21st century archaeologists as evidence of modern human behavior.

Some artifacts from early archaeological sties might be adornment, or they might be ‘art’ (or at least “arty”) and they might be related to ritual, and archaeologists will argue eternally over the meaning of lumps of red ochre or rocks with grooves or scratches in them. But a manufactured bead is unambiguous. A roundish or even blob shaped pretty rock with a hole purposefully drilled through it is a bead, and even the most skeptical wet-blanket yielding taphonomist will accept that as an object of adornment, and thus the outcome of symbolic behavior, and thus evidence of the activities of a cultural and/or linguistic mind, and thus the presence at the time and place specified by the contextual analysis of the artifact of a con-specific.

I feel sorry for all those hominids who did not like beads and thus will never be part of the club. I also feel sorry for the archaeologists who are going to read this and say “Hey, wait a minute, a bead COULD be natural, how can you ever really be sure…?” But that discussion is for another time.

Now, we want to ask: What about the more specific behaviors, rituals, and beliefs that emerged within the historical and geographical range of modern human-ness? The paper at hand, by Dani Bar-Yosef Mayer and Naomi Porat, makes the bold assertion that the use of certain beads in West Asia is directly related to the beginning of ritual associated with the origins of agriculture, the use of objects to enhance ‘fertility’ (of humans, of the land) and to ward off the Evil Eye.

~ Repost from one year ago this month ~

This may sound a bit nutty. In fact, it is part of the sensibility of at least Americans, if not Anglo-Westerners in general, to hear “Evil Eye” and go “Oh, that’s nutty…” owing to the fact that Evil Eye cultism has been used so much in our comedy and cartoon depiction . I’m pretty sure that Bugs Bunny had a thing with the Evil Eye. But let’s put aside our prejudiced viewpoints and give this article a serious look.

To begin with, there are good arguments that color is important in relation to adornment and ritual objects. This is expected because humans are primates and we evolved excellent color vision and perception for various reasons in relation to certain colors. Moreover, the colors to which we orient and about which we tend to get excited (for quite complicated reasons, most likely) are colors not extremely common in sediments, rocks, and natural minerals. So when these or similar colors do show up in the abiotic world, perhaps we get extra excited … maybe even symbolic.

Within this broader context, then, is it the case that the earliest symbolically cranked humans enjoyed all of the colors that are out there in the mineral world? No, the authors argue. White, yellow, brown, red and black and only very rarely green were the focus of the early human hunter-gatherers.

In contrast, in West Asia at the origin of agriculture in those regions, green rocks became increasingly used.

A major change occurred during the transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture in the Near East. This period spans the transition from the Pleistocene to the Holocene era, and culturally it marks the passage from the last Epi-Paleolithic culture, namely the Natufian, to Neolithic cultures….The first appearance of stone beads in the Levant is in the Late Natufian [~13,000-11,500 calibrated (cal) B.P.]. Their green color is what distinguishes them from all other beads and pendants previously discovered.

Like paisley during the 60s, black during the 90s, green was in during the Natufian.

The researchers very thoroughly analyzed 221 beads from eight sites.

The beads’ colors were … divided into four main groups: white to pale yellow, black to brown, orange to red, and gray to green. [compared to earlier periods] minerals are found for the first time in significant numbers, in the context of archaeological entities that bear evidence of being in the midst of an economic change in subsistence strategy, the beginning of cultivation.

The authors make the argument (convincingly in my opinion) that over this period of time a great deal of extra effort went into the extraction and transport of the necessary raw materials to make the green beads, seemingly in comparison with other colors (although the difference is not quantified, nor could it be necessarily). The authors then speculate:

We propose that the green color mimics the green of young leaf blades, which signify germination and embody the wish for successful crops and for success in fertility.

This is a reasonable speculation but in and of itself unprovable and not very powerful. But in the context of both ethnography and more archeology, this observation becomes especially interesting.

First, the authors note that green, which shows up in this context for the first time (they know of in the Old World) persists in the subsequent archaeological record. I would put it this way: We’ve got tens of thousands of years of humans using pretty colors from abiotic soruces. A bit over ten thousand years ago there is a dividing line: Green not common before, more common and consistant after this line. This line happens also to be the beginning of agriculture in the region. Coincidence? Not clearly, no. But maybe. Which is pretty good for this sort of thing in archaeology.

The authors then provide citations form the ethnographic record indicating that beads are often used as amulets: As meaningful requests, as it were, for luck or protection of some kind from the natural world or its agents. The link via the color green to both food crops and medicinal or recreational crops is reasonable.

The use of green beads is an ongoing tradition in the Near East. …. Blue ”eyes” are produced in Turkey and elsewhere to this day. … a study of heirloom jewelry in a farming community in Jordan … emphasizes the beads’ amuletic use, and in particular their relevance to women’s health and fertility, which are considered by the owners to be the result of the ”evil eye’s” power ….

Similar links are made in Zulu as well as Hebrew. I would add that green is linked in other cultures to fertility, including some European traditions. Green is the color of Islam (if Islam could be said to have a color) and in ancient Egypt was linked to spring and fertility. In contrast, in some Native American traditions, where green is a big player, the color is often linked to raw power or strong magic at least in some cultures.

The authors also note the interchangeability between green and blue.

To conclude, the occurrence of green stone beads is highly associated with the transition to agriculture and may signify the first use of this color to ward off the ”evil eye” that is mentioned already in Mesopotamian texts (38 and references therein). This tradition may have begun in the Near East as early as 10,000 years ago.

At this point, I would like to engage in a discussion of how we know things, or don’t, from archaeological evidence. But I think I’ll let that discussion play out in the comments, if there are comments on this post. That is a discussion that could either develop wings or feet of clay. We could become red with anger, green with envy, or even just plain blue. But right now, I’m going to go fishing. And it is my belief at this time, with sunny but cool conditions and a lot of wind, that the fish are most likely to respond to a lure that is big, spinning, and yellow. I’ll let you know how that goes.

DISCLOSURE: One of the authors of this paper (D. B-Y) is the spouse of my co-advisor for my PhD (Ofer Bar-Yosef). I assure my readers, however, that this does not cause a negative bias! :)

Bar-Yosef Mayer, D.E., Porat, N. (2008). From the Cover: Green stone beads at the dawn of agriculture. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 105(25), 8548-8551. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0709931105


  1. #1 D. C. Sessions
    July 21, 2009

    ResearchBlogging.orgIt has become axiomatic that the use of adornment by humans is some sort of symbolic act


    From the sound of it, this point has become a lot stronger than “axiomatic.” It’s not assumed without evidence; indeed, it seems to have a good bit of evidence supporting it.

  2. #2 Nathan Myers
    July 21, 2009

    Sounds like the expression “symbolic act” has itself leaked away meaning. Is growing a wattle a symbolic act, for a bird? How is this necessarily different from wearing earrings? (Yes, they could be crosses, but Madonna made crosses trendy and meaningless only a few years back.) Let’s not confuse groupthink with real scientific consensus.