Exploring the Past Through Jewellery

A deer tooth dating back 20 000 years

An amazing find was made not that long ago in 2019. It was a pierced ancient deer tooth. Most times when things like this are found, it’s speculated that they were used as ornamentation for our ancestors. A practice we still do today. That rock you found and strung, the pretty shell you found on the beach, that cool thing that you found in the park, but aren’t sure what it actually is so you stick it on a string with a couple of beads and make a show piece. We’ve been doing it for generations, but what makes this deer tooth so interesting then?

It's Interesting Because....

This is one of the first times they’ve been able to extract DNA from a relic without having to partially destroy it or contaminate their find.

Usually when something like this is found, they have to cut off a piece or disolve it in order to test for DNA and age markers. However, thanks to a cutting edge technique created by Molecular Biologist Elena Essel of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, we don’t have to anymore. Elena found a way of extracting DNA directly from the specimen with little to no damage to it at all. This technique is a game changer. It means that modern day tools will no longer destroy or leave traces of our day in age in the samples to mess up findings. Imagine it like this, your favourite cooking spoon (admit it, we all have one) was used to stir a tuna casserole on Tuesday. You washed it, put it away and on Wednesday you use the same spoon to stir spaghetti sauce, but for some reason now your sauce tastes a bit fishy. Maybe the spoon wasn’t quite as clean as you thought. That can sometimes happen with artifacts too and transference occurs making a definite finding somewhat harder to actually establish. With this new technique it will stop that from happening or make it so low a chance that it won’t register 95% of the time.

There are drawbacks however. The only DNA that can be pulled is from whoever touched it last. So while this technique is brilliant and can give us much more information in the future on finds we make, or perhaps enlighten us more on relics we’ve already found, it can only provide a snap shot of that information. We can date it, tell you where it was found, it’s genetic make up, and who had it last, but it may not be where it’s from, or how it got there, or who had it originally. 

So Why Should Artists Care?

People who make jewellery should care, because this is HUGE in our Artistic world! It may only be a snap shot, but from this one “snap shot” we already know that the supposed pendant is around 20,000 years old. That it was owned by a Sapien. They are one of the three main species of human that existed in our past. Infact, as more evidence becomes available about the human genome, we’re discovering that modern humans can carry one of the three DNA’s of our ancient past: Sapiens (which is considered modern man) Denisovian (which is like a mixing of Sapiens and Neaderthals) and Neaderthals. Infact, in time all three co-existed in some of the same places, which is what Scientists think has happened here. 

Another interesting fact is that the woman (yup they could figure that out too) wasn’t actually from the site that the tooth was found. She was actually from a group or clan that was based 2000 miles away. So what does this mean? We’re actually still trying to figure that out.

It’s interesting to think about though. Perhaps she was a travelling merchant? Perhaps she was a maker of ornaments for her people or others (like an ancient travelling jeweller) who was peddling her wares when she dropped one. Perhaps she was sharing her crafting knowledge with others and teaching them what she knew, so they too could start crafting beautiful items. If you think about it, maybe we’ve come full circle again in modern days, only instead of travelling thousands and thousands of miles we now have the technology to connect and teach other all over the world and spread beauty and creativity everywhere with everyone. 

Just food for thought.

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