While the first evidence of culture is manifested in simple stone-cutting tools that were made in East Africa 1.5 million years ago, the earliest known beads are associated with Neanderthal man.
They were discovered at L Quina, an archaeological site in France, and have been dated to approximately 38,000 B.C., at about the time Homo sapien populations were replacing the Neanderthals and developing new and more complex cultures.
The La Quina beads are made from grooved animal teeth and bones and were worn as pendants. They are unique to the Neanderthal period, however, and few in number.
Beads have been found with fossil bones and other cultural remains in archaeological discoveries throughout the world including India, China, Korea, Africa and Australia. But it is not until the earliest phase of the Upper Paleolithic period in western Europe -- known as the Chatelperronian period (c. 31,000 B.C.) -- that beads appear in quantity and as creations of modern man.
The early beads reflect the sophisticated mentality of Upper Paleolithic people, who were able to develop abstract forms and symbols that increased their capacity to cope with an often hazardous environment.
Beads were self-conscious expressions of prowess in hunting. They also symbolized people's need for spiritual assistance (and protection) in obtaining resources that they found difficult but necessary to have. They were talismanic, made from by-products of the hunt: bone, teeth, tusks and shells.
By wearing parts of the animal's body, the wearer and creator of the beads gained a measure of control over its spirit. The appearance of jewelry can also be associated with the growing need for personal identity when the human population expanded and large-scale communities evolved 30,000 to 20,000 years ago.
The late Upper Paleolithic era (17,000-10,000 B.C.) witnessed an elaborate development both in the design of individual beads and in the ways in which beads were combined.
In Siberia, a number of spectacular late Upper Paleolithic bead finds have been made. At the Ushki Lake site in Kamchatka, graves from 12,000 to 11,000 B.C. Were discovered containing pendants and numerous stone beads that evidently had been sewn onto the clothing of the deceased.
The use of symbols in ritual activity and in personal adornment began with the Neanderthals between 70,000 and 40,000 years ago. Bear skulls were arranged in patterns around graves, and burials were sprinkled with red ocher and accompanied by offerings of food, tools and fresh flowers.
The idea of an afterlife, that something human lives on, required symbols of permanence that would remain intact at the grave after the completion of the rituals.
The first adornment was probably made of perishable berries and seeds, but with the discovery of more durable materials, such as bone, shell and stone, and ways of working with them, beads became one of these symbols.
Something began in Neanderthal times and dramatically increased with the emergence of Homo sapiens to bring about an increasing self-consciousness and desire for adornment.
Early Homo sapiens quite possibly used cosmetics (such as red ocher for rouge) and wore great quantities of jewelry, including clothes decorated with rows of beads, jet pendants, ivory bracelets, and necklaces of pierced animal teeth, vertebrae and shells.
The fine quality of early beads shows the technological prowess of late Paleolithic artists. Working with ivory and bone required highly specialized tools, and their availability predetermined the complexity and often the shape of crafted objects people could conceive and make.
Central to understanding human cultural development is the knowledge of how artisans used tools to extend their thinking and dexterity.
To work flexible, organic materials such as bone, antler, and ivory -- raw materials readily available as by-products of the hunt -- a special kind of tool was required. That tool was the burin. Its strong, sharply beveled edge or point was well-adapted to cut, incise, and shape other materials. It differed from most other paleolithic stone tools in that it was not used to kill animals or cut meat, but rather to manufacture other tools. It was also used to carve miniature sculptures that served as ritual paraphernalia and items of adornment.
In the later phases of the period, as of 3500 B.C., metal weapons and tools came into use alongside traditional stone implements. (This was a technological advance that led to man's next phase of development, the Bronze Age.)
Of great significance for the study of beads was the expansion of long-distance trade between the rapidly evolving, agriculturally intensive civilizations of the Mediterranean and the mountain cultures of western Asia.
The uneven distribution of the regions' resources created networks of commercial relations that united these societies and encouraged the exchange of cultural artifacts.
Made of scarce, durable and easily recognizable raw materials to which commercial value could be easily assigned, and produced in small, standardized and readily portable sizes, beads became a major commodity for traders.
The demand for exotic and rare materials to be used for adornment helped to establish trade networks in Western Asia and the Mediterranean at a very early date. By 6500 B.C., there were strong and far-reaching interchanges.
Beads are among the commonest objects recovered from Neolithic sites in Western Asia. Since people were interred with valued possessions, the inclusion of large quantities of beads in numerous burials points to their importance within ancient societies.
Archaeological evidence also indicates that beads were produced in all shapes and sizes from a very early date. Between 10,000 and 8000 B.C., the Natufians of the Jordan River valley had made beads from stone, shell and bone.
Beads of native copper, serpentine and malachite have been excavated at Catal Huyuk, which was founded in 6250 B.C. Seventh- and sixth-millennium B.C. Sites in Afghanistan, Iran, Syria and Mesopotamia have yielded beads made of basalt, limestone, steatite, obsidian, ivory and harder agates and carnelian.
Typical bead forms included disks, cylinders, barrels, biconicals, pumpkins and flattened rhomboids -- shapes that were created with limited tools and technology.
The image of the bull is widespread, almost universal in ancient art and religious artifacts. In European cave paintings of Paleolithic and Neolithic times, bulls and horned bison are portrayed with beauty and in fine detail. We naturally associate the bull with power and masculinity. Indeed, in the Sumerian Gilgamesh epic, the "bull of heaven" is a fire-breathing monster the hero must subdue.
Later, the Assyrians, Babylonians, and other warlike peoples melded bull and human forms to attest to the divine power of their kings.
Nonetheless, modern archaeologists have found that for thousands of years of the "Great Goddess" religion, both cow and bull were associated with the life-giving and regenerative qualities of the goddess.
Marija Gimbutas, an archaeologist and leading scholar of European prehistory, cites author Dorothy Cameron's insight on Neolithic symbolism -- namely, that the head and horns of the bull strongly resemble the female reproductive organs. Early hunters would have discovered this due to some of their burial practices.
"In the end, it has become clear that the prominence of the bull in this symbolic system comes not from that animal's strength and masculinity, as in Indo-European symbolism, but rather from the accidental similarity between its head and the female reproductive organs. The bull is not a god but essentially a symbol of becoming. Its intimacy with the uterus further explains the bull's association with symbols of regeneration and becoming such as life water, moon, eggs and plants."
The Language of the Goddess
At Catal Huyuk, in Turkey, excavations have revealed a great deal regarding a goddess-worshipping culture of the 7th millennium B.C.E. Here images of bulls, bull horns and related geometric designs are constantly associated with the goddess and symbols of life.
In her shrine the goddess gives birth to a bull's head with horns -- possibly a reference to the mysterious internal organs or a symbol of unending life force.
As Gimbutas and other scholars point out, associating the bull only with fertility is an oversimplification of a profound nature-worship in which universal processes are symbolized in aspects of the goddess: life-giving, death-dealing, re-generating.
In the ancient view, all life arose from decay and death. Animal sacrifice had the purpose of granting new energy and renewed life. As practiced in Greek, Roman, Hebrew and other highly ritualized priestly religions, the bull sacrifice was already an ancient and widespread practice.
In Minoan Crete there was a culture that rose to its height between 2600 and 2000 B.C.E., flourished for 600 more years, then abruptly fell about 1450 B.C.E. as a result of the volcanic eruption of nearby Thera. This cataclysm sent fatal tidal waves to the Northern coast and rained volcanic ash over the previously fertile island.
Widely accepted as the kingdom that inspired the Egyptian Atlantis legend (theory originated by distinguished archaeologist Spiros Marinatos), Minoan Crete was a culture of beautiful art, enjoyment of life, sophisticated crafts and technology and deep spirituality based on worship of the Great Goddess.
With the only fleet of ships at this time, the Minoans traded with Egypt and the Greek mainland, but had no need of a navy, no military defenses and no wars. Only after the natural disaster of 1450 B.C.E. did the culture decline, and eventually the island was dominated by warrior-kings of Mycenaean Greece -- the Achaeans described in Homer's Iliad and Odyssey.
The Minoan religion may be seen as the apotheosis or culmination of the Stone Age goddess religion from Catal Huyuk and myriad other sites. The Minoans' rituals also appropriated the bull horns as their chief goddess symbol.
Gimbutas interprets the hourglass and double ax motif of Crete (see Worship vase on display) as a symbol of the butterfly of new life, often shown rising from the horns of a bull (as in the sacrifice) or symbolically from the goddess's womb.
This double ax, or "labrys" in Greek, associated with legendary King Minos, gave its name to the labyrinth of later Greek legend, which was said to be under the palace at Knossos. In fact, the palace is multi-leveled and elaborately build, with a gravity fed running water system and other remarkable engineering feats.
All that remained in memory of this extraordinary advanced culture was the legend of Theseus, Athenian hero who survived Minos's terrifying maze, slew the half-man half-bull offspring of Queen Pasiphae, known as the Minotaur, and ended the practice of sacrificing young Greek men and women there -- all with the help of Ariadne, princess/sorceress who became enamored of the hero.
In the story of the Minotaur, many elements of Minoan history and religion are preserved -- but distorted through the lens of a highly patriarchal culture that had its own world view and relationship to natural processes.
In the legend, the bull appears as the Minotaur, an earthly but divine power, a dweller in darkness, associated with feminine and magical forces, and at the center of a death and rebirth sacrificial drama.
Ariadne may be a stand-in for goddess priestesses and celebrants, and the legendary labyrinth builder, Daedelus, corresponds to generations of Minoan technologists who developed a complex architecture and accomplished engineering feats we can still admire.
However, in the Theseus legend, the harmony of the human and divine realms is absent, since the direct goddess symbolism of the bull had been lost. Minoan art and symbolism pervades later Greek and all Mediterranean culture -- but the differences are dramatic.
Following is a capsule interpretation of the Greek legend by artist and researcher Buffie Johnson:
"The journey of the male through the passage of the labyrinth furnishes a contact with forces of the Dark Mother, which finally leads to wisdom or enlightenment.
The labyrinth becomes a symbol of the self, a mandala through which one approached the sacred center. It is not surprising, in a patriarchal society, to find a monster like the Minotaur there at the center of the maze.
He unites the conscious and unconscious forces in a masculine dichotomy: the conscious desire for male power and male self-hood can only be satisfied by turning to the female, and acknowledging the bull's head on the man, by going into the feminine labyrinth. The Minotaur seems a natural product of patriarchal thinking endemic in the mythology of later times."
Lady of the Beasts
The wall frescoes of King Minos' legendary palace at Knossos and other Minoan sites are, by almost any standard, a landmark in the history of art!
These lively court ladies, athletic princes, ornate priestesses, cheerful servants, lithe bull-dancers, not to mention life-like plants and animals, strongly resemble 20th century art.
The style is free and fluid, colors are bright, compositions are fanciful and expressive. The painting of the Taurokathapsia, the bull game of Crete, is an example of Minoan painting at its best. Like a still from a movie, it shows us how the highly-trained acrobats gripped the bull's horns and somersaulted over its back.
There is a controversy among scholars as to whether this spectacle was purely entertainment or part of the religious ceremony surrounding the bull sacrifice. Bull dancing followed by sacrifice to the goddess seems highly likely -- since parts of the ritual survive to the present in Spanish bullfights.
The image of the bull, and particularly the mystery and emotional power of the Minotaur, have fired the imagination of European artists over the centuries.
During the nineteenth century, Francisco Goya developed many images relating to the theme of bullfighting.
In modern art, Spanish painter Pablo Picasso took the Minotaur as a favorite motif in his later work. So did Henri Matisse, who produced an exquisite suite of linocuts illustrating a modern retelling by Henri de Montherlant of the Theseus legend, Pasiphae.
American writer Anais Nin, who lived for years as an expatriate in Paris, used the legend in her novels, as have many other poets and writers of our time.