Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Thursday, February 1, 2024


We are hardly the only animal species that sports adornments, but most of the others -- bright colors, flashy feathers, ornate fins, and so on -- are created by genes and produced by the animal's own body.  We're one of the only ones who fashion those adornments out of other objects.

It's a curious thing when you think about it.  Virtually everyone wears clothes even when there's no particular necessity for purposes of protection or warmth; and a great many of us don such accessories as ties, scarves, hats, necklaces, bracelets, and rings.  The significance of these objects is largely culturally-determined (e.g. in western society a guy wearing a tie is a professional, someone with a ring on the fourth left finger is probably married, and so on).  Some have ritual meanings (clothing or jewelry that marks you as belonging to a particular religion, for example).  Others are simply for the purpose of increasing attractiveness to one's preferred gender.

But the odd fact remains that in the animal world, such items are almost entirely confined to the human species.

However such practices got started, what's certain is that they go back a long way.  A study that came out in Nature this week, by a team led by Jack Baker of the University of Bordeaux, has shown that not only does jewelry-making and wearing go back at least 34,000 years, the jewelry styles of prehistoric Europe belong to nine discernibly different styles -- suggesting that beads, necklaces, and the like may have been used as markers for belonging to particular cultures.

A few of the shells, beads, teeth, and other trinkets used in the Baker et al. study

The study was comprehensive, analyzing artifacts from Paviland, Wales east to Kostenki, Russia, and covering a period of nearly ten thousand years.  "We've shown that you can have two [distinct] genetic groups of people who actually share a culture," Baker said.  "In the East, for example, they were very, very much more focused on ivory, on teeth, on stone.  But on the other side of the Alps, people would have adorned themselves with really flamboyant colors: reds, pinks, blues, really vibrant colors.  If you were to see one person from each group, you could say, ‘He's from the East, and he's from the West,’ at a quick glance."

The intricacy and complexity of a particular adornment, Baker said, were probably reflective of wealth or social status -- just as they are today.

Interestingly, there was no particularly good correlation between the genetic relatedness of two groups and the similarity in their jewelry.  As Baker put it, "This study has shown really nicely that genetics does not equal culture."

Given its ubiquity -- there are very few cultures that don't wear some sort of jewelry -- you have to wonder how it got started.  Who was the first early human who thought, "Hey, I could string this shell on a piece of leather and hang it around my neck"?  Why would that thought have occurred to him/her?

And how did the other early humans react?  I picture them looking at their necklace-wearing friend and saying something like the Gary Larson/The Far Side line, "Hey!  Look what Zog do!"

It's interesting to try to consider it from the standpoint of an alien scientist studying anthropology.  How would you answer the question, "Why are you wearing that bracelet?"  Okay, you think it looks good, but why?

I'm not sure I have an answer to that.


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