40,000 year old bracelet crafted by pre-historic human ancestors discovered in the Denisova cave in southern Siberia

A unique modern-looking polished green-stone bracelet made out of the green mineral chlorite, and discovered together with a ring carved out of marble, inside an ancient Siberian cave, known as the Denisova cave, in the Altai Mountain range in 2008, has now been determined by Russian Scientists and Archaeologists to be around 40,000 years old, making it the oldest stone bracelet and the oldest piece of jewelry ever discovered, believed to have been crafted by our pre-historic human ancestors. The bracelet was discovered during excavations inside the famous cave, renowned for its earlier archaeological finds, such as the bones of 66 different types of mammals and 50 bird species, including the bones of some extinct animals such as the woolly mammoth and woolly rhino. The Denisova Cave, located next to the Anuy River, about 150 km south of Barnaul, has become a popular tourist attraction due to its palaeontological importance. The cave gets its name after Denis, a Russian hermit who lived there in the 18th-century.

Dr Anatoly Derevyanko,  Director of the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography of the Russian Academy of Sciences
Dr Anatoly Derevyanko, Director of the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography of the Russian Academy of Sciences

Writing in the Novosibirsk magazine, “Science First Hand,” Dr Anatoly Derevyanko , Director of the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography in Novosibirsk, part of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, said: “There were found two fragments of the bracelet of a width of 2.7 cm and a thickness of 0.9 cm. The estimated diameter of the find was 7 cm. Near one of the cracks was a drilled hole with a diameter of about 0.8 cm. Studying them, scientists found that the speed of rotation of the drill used was rather high, with minimal fluctuations and there was applied easel drilling with an implement – technology that is common for more recent times. The ancient master, who created the bracelet, was skilled in techniques previously considered not characteristic for the Palaeolithic era, from which the bracelet originated, such as drilling with an implement, boring tool type rasp, grinding and polishing with a leather and skins of varying degrees of tanning. Chlorite was not found in the vicinity of the cave and is thought to have come from a distance of at least 200 km, showing how valued the material was at the time.”

Larger fragment of the bracelet, width 2.7 cm and thickness 0.9 cm
Larger fragment of the bracelet, width 2.7 cm and thickness 0.9 cm
Inner surface of the larger fragment of the bracelet
Inner surface of the larger fragment of the bracelet

Dr Derevyanko further said the bracelet had suffered damage, including visible scratches and bumps although it looked as if some of the scratches had been sanded down. Experts also believe that the piece of jewelry had other adornments to make it more beautiful.

Visible scratches and bumps on the surface of the bracelet
Visible scratches and bumps on the surface of the bracelet

“Next to the hole on the outer surface of the bracelet can be seen clearly a limited polished zone of intensive contact with some soft organic material,” said Dr Derevyanko. “Scientists have suggested that it was a leather strap with some charm, and this charm was rather heavy. The location of the polished section made it possible to identify the ‘top’ and ‘bottom’ of the bracelet and to establish that it was worn on the right hand.”

Traces of drilling visible  inside the drill hole
Traces of drilling visible inside the drill hole

“The bracelet is stunning – in bright sunlight it reflects the sun rays, at night by the fire it casts a deep shade of green,’ said Dr. Derevyanko.

Portion of a polished neolithic bracelet created 10,000-2,000 BC
Portion of a polished neolithic bracelet created 10,000-2,000 BC

The unique bracelet is currently on display at the Museum of History and Culture of the Peoples’ of Siberia and the Far East, in the city of Novosibirsk.

Larger fragment of the bracelet on display at the museum against the model of a human hand
Larger fragment of the bracelet on display at the museum against the model of a human hand

Head of the museum Irina Salnikova said: “‘I love this find. The skills of its creator were perfect. Initially we thought that it was made by Neanderthals or modern humans Homo sapiens, but it turned out that the master was a Denisovan hominin, at least in our opinion.”

Reconstruction of how the original bracelet would have appeared
Reconstruction of how the original bracelet would have appeared

In fact, soon after its discovery in 2008, scientists and archaeologists who studied the find believed the jewelry were the hall mark of the emergence of Homo sapiens from their pre-historic ancestor, or was crafted by Homo neanderthalensis whose geographic range extended across Eurasia from Western Europe to Norhtern and Central Asia. However, in the same Upper-Palaeolithic layers where the ancient jewelry, the bracelet and the ring, were discovered in 2008, another sensational discovery was made that was going to change the scientific understanding of the evolution of early man. Nearby, the finger bone fragment of a seven- or eight-year-old girl, believed at that time to be a Neanderthal, who lived about 40,000 years ago was discovered in the Denisova cave. The finger bone fragment was the distal manual phalanx of the fifth digit. In the year 2010, a team of scientists led by Dr. Johannes Krause, including Dr. Anatoly Derevyanko subjected the bone fragment to DNA analysis, having successfully extracted mitochondrial DNA from 30 mg of the bone powder. The team unravelled the complete mitochondrial (mt) DNA sequence of the mt-DNA extracted from the bone fragment and surprisingly discovered that the DNA sequence represents a hitherto unknown type of hominin mt-DNA that shares a common ancestor with anatomically modern human and Neanderthal mt-DNAs about 1.0 million years ago. This indicates that it derives from a hominin migration out of Africa distinct from that of the ancestors of Neanderthals and of modern humans. The stratigraphy of the cave where the bone was found suggests that the Denisova hominin lived close in time and space with Neanderthals as well as with modern humans. Genetically, the Denisovan hominin was almost twice as far from modern humans as the Neanderthals were. Hence it appears that three kinds of hominins—Homo sapiens, Homo neanderthalensis, and Homo altaiensis (Denisovan hominin)—apparently lived within the same geographic area roughly 30,000 to 50,000 years ago (upper-palaeolithic).

Altai mountain range in southern Siberia where the Denisova Cave is situated
Altai mountain range in southern Siberia where the Denisova Cave is situated

Entrance to the Denisovan Cave where the bracelet was discovered
Entrance to the Denisovan Cave where the bracelet was discovered

 

A closer view of the entrance to the Denisova Cave
A closer view of the entrance to the Denisova Cave

 

The occurrence of the Denisovan hominin bone fragment and the remnants of the bracelet and ring together in the same upper-palaeolithic layer inside the cave suggested a link between the two, and the Russian scientists and archaeologists believe that the fragments of jewelry left in this layer belonged to the Denisovans, who, though in terms of genetical and morphological characters were much more archaic than Neanderthals and modern humans, appeared to be most progressive of the three hominins in terms of the use of tools (technical advancement) as revealed by the bracelet and ring left behind by them, and particularly the use of a drilling equipment to drill a hole in the bracelet. In otherwords, what made the discovery of the brooch striking was that the manufacturing technology used by the Denisovan hominins of the upper-palaeolithic (40,000-10,000 BC) was more common to a much later period, the Neolithic era (10,000-2,000 BC). Indeed the rare discovery has baffled both scientists and archaeologists as to how the Denisovans who lived in the upper-palaeolithic were able to turn out such polished jewelry with drill holes with such perfect skills only achieved during the Neolithic period by modern humans. The Deputy Director of the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography in Novosibirsk, Mikhail Shunkov believes that the find indicates the Denisovans – though now extinct – were more advanced than Homo sapiens and Neanderthals.

Archaeological excavation taking place inside the Denisovan cave
Archaeological excavation taking place inside the Denisovan cave

The possibility was then raised whether the modern-looking bracelet could have been buried with older remains. The Russian experts considered this possibility but rejected it, saying they believed the layers were uncontaminated by human interference from a later period. This was confirmed by subjecting the soil around the bracelet to oxygen isotopic analysis that determined its age as around 40,000 years.

Mikhail Shunkov The Deputy Director of the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography in Novosibirsk
Mikhail Shunkov The Deputy Director of the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography in Novosibirsk

The Denisovans are thought to date back to as early as 600,000 years ago, and were neither Neanderthals nor modern humans. DNA discovered in Spain suggests the species which was more common in Russia and the east, at some point resided in Western Europe, where previously Neanderthals had been thought to be the only early inhabitants. The first indication of the existence of Denisovans in pre-historic times came from the finger bone fragment of the young girl, discovered in 2008 in the Denisova Cave. Since then the discovery of two teeth belonging to different members of the same population has been reported. Very little is known of the physical characteristics of the Denisovans, as the only physical remains discovered so far are the finger bone, the two teeth and a toe bone.

Irina Salnikova, head the Museum of History and Culture of the Peoples of Siberia and the Far East in Novosibirsk.
Irina Salnikova, head the Museum of History and Culture of the Peoples of Siberia and the Far East in Novosibirsk.

Head of the Museum of History and Culture in Novosibirsk, Irina Salnikova, says, “All jewellery had a magical meaning for ancient people. Bracelets and neck adornments were to protect people from evil spirits, for instance. But this item, given the complicated technology and “imported” material used, obviously belonged to some high ranking person of that society.”

Dr Anatoly Derevyanko, Director of the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography, says, “It is unlikely it was used as an everyday jewellery piece. I believe this beautiful and very fragile bracelet was worn only for some exceptional moments.”

The Denisovan bracelet dating back to 40,000 years is the oldest stone bracelet in the world. New pictures have been published that shows this ancient piece of jewelry in its full glory, including a reconstruction of how it would have looked at that time.

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