Sparkly jewelry, expensive shoes, designer watches – who does not like a little "bling"?
In 2017 Australians spent $ 28.5 billion on decorating themselves with clothing, cosmetics and accessories.
But this obsession with the organization of our bodies is not only a trivial activity. Archaeological evidence shows us that it is actually a large part of what makes us human.
Ice age and & # 39; jewelry & # 39; in an Indonesian cave reveal an ancient symbolic culture
Why jewelery is important
Why do we spend so much on decorating ourselves? In short, it is because we use bling to communicate.
Consider, for example, engagement rings. It is well understood in many countries that a sparkle on the ring finger of the left hand means that the wearer is engaged to marry. That ring sends a certain message.
Indeed, all we carry is sending messages. We all know phrases like "power suits" and "statement pieces". The items we choose to wear tell people around us who we are: professionals, athletes, doctors, artists, mothers, and so on. Some choices are conscious, others not so much – yet everything we carry tells a story.
Blingy birds and beautiful fish
When I talk publicly about the use of bling by people, viewers often get the case forward from satin bowerbirds. The man of this kind builds a complicated gazebo before being decorated with blue objects.
Likewise, but under water, male puffer creates beautiful geometrical patterns in the ocean floor.
But how is this seemingly artistic behavior different from what we humans do?
The short answer is abstract thought .
The bowerbird and the puffer fish are focused on attracting a partner. Their message is simple: "I am here and I am healthy." There is no conversation about how to send this message – they just do it … do it.
Our messages – which we send people through our bling – are coded with the help of agreed symbols (such as a diamond ring) of which we decide that they stand for something else ("betrothed to be married"). ).
This process whereby we mutually agree that something can stand for something completely different is what makes us human. And jewelry has been central to this unique ability for hundreds of thousands of years.
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Embellishing our bodies: widening our minds
Archaeologists find finding body decorations closest to finding prehistoric thinking. Their first appearance in archaeological history tells us when the human mind has become sufficiently sophisticated to come up with individual identities.
Originally, humanity lived in small groups scattered over the landscape. Everyone knew everyone, and interactions between complete strangers were rare.
Growing populations, however, led to an increasingly complex social world in which we did not know each individual personally. This meant that we had to tell people who we were.
So we began to carry certain things to send messages regarding our personal status (available, married, leader, healer) and group appointments.
Through this use of body decorations, people can continue to expand our communities, leading to more complex behavior and more complex minds.
Origins in body paint
The earliest evidence for bling is red pigments – mineral earth-ocher – used by modern people as bodypaint ( Homo sapiens like ourselves) about 285,000 years ago in Africa.
Interestingly, it seems that not long after (about 250,000 years ago) Neanderthals did the same in Europe.
However, body paint lasts only for so long – until you wash it, it rains, or just wears it. It has a time limit.
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Beads, beads and more beads
Beads on the other hand can last for generations. This ability to be used and reused is considerably greater than the time and energy it takes to make them – and at least 100,000 years ago people needed and recognized the benefits of beads.
Around this time people in Africa and in Israel were looking for small white shells called Nassarius strike a hole through their surface so that they could be laced and used in addition to red body paint.  Location of some of the earliest evidence for bodylerviering (Red dot = ocher, yellow dot = bead or bone ornament): (1) Maastricht-Belvédère, (2) Grotte des Pigeons, (3) Skhul, (4) Qafzeh , (5) GnJh-15, (6) Blombos, (7) Jerimalai, (8) Madjedbebe, (9) Carpenter & # 39; s Gap 1.
Drawn by M. Langley.
It is no coincidence that the oldest beads are made of shells: they come in shapes that we like (round), colors that we like (white / cream / black), and are shiny (we find this much ). Small shells are also hardy, able to withstand shocks or falls (handy).
What's more, they can be worn in different ways – allowing us to send many different messages.
Soon we found other light-colored and shiny materials (bone, tooth, ivory, antler, stone) to create new types of ornaments and to send more messages.
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What is more permanent than beads? The insertion of ink into the dermis layer of the skin – also known as tattoo.
Images from Europe suggest that tattooing can have an age of at least 30,000 years, although the earliest irrefutable evidence for tattooing is currently the Tyrolean ice man, commonly known as "Ötzi".
The victim of murder so 5,300 years ago, Ötzi sports about 61 markings of the skin. Likewise old are two predynastic Egyptian mummies, while a younger, spectacular example is a 2500-year-old Siberian princess.
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Tattooing also has an impressive history in the Pacific Ocean, inspiring modern practices while passing age-old stories.
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Bling is human
Because bling is so closely connected with communication, archaeologists can not only follow the development of our minds, but also the development of our societies.
For us, more bling in the archaeological record indicates more interactions. Treated bling tells us who was talking to whom. And new types of bling reflect changed circumstances.
All bling is valuable because it tells us something about the person who wore it.
This article is based on a series of lectures delivered by Michelle to the Abbey Museum of Art and Archeology and the Queensland College of Art – Griffith University in July and August 2018.