Pretty, Sparkly Things

Why did human beings first begin working metal?   A very cool new paper in December’s Antiquity reveals that the desire to beautify the human body had much to do with it.

An international team led by Benjamin Roberts,  a curator at the British Museum, scoured the scientific literature for the earliest known evidence of metal-working.  The paper trail led them to northeastern Iraq.   There,  at two sites,  Shanidar Cave and Zawi Chemi, pastoralists and farmers in the 11th century BCE left behind copper beads and pendants.  Human vanity,  it appears,  spurred early metalworkers to experiment with sparkly, blue-green copper ores.

I was a little perplexed at first by this mention of Shanidar Cave.  As some readers will know, Shanidar is most famous as a Neanderthal burial site.   Perched above the Zab River,  the cave was excavated in the 1950s by Ralph and Rose Solecki,  who recovered  remains of several Neanderthals,  including some who appear to have been deliberately buried.  When pollen experts analyzed soil samples from the cave,  they detected high levels of flower pollen– evidence,  in the view of Ralph Solecki  and his colleague Andre Leroi-Gourhan,  that Neanderthal mourners had ritually blanketed the body in flowers,   a very modern-human kind of behavior.   This research captured the public imagination,  and Ralph  Solecki’s later book,  Shanidar, The First Flower People,  is said to have  inspired writer Jean Auel,  whose novel Clan of the Cave Bear became a bestseller.

Critics,  however,  have long disputed this interpretation.  The excavators,  they note, detected no sign of a grave pit:  indeed it is very possible that the Neanderthal in question perished in an unfortunate accident,  when a large rock  slab fell from the cave ceiling.  That just leaves the famous pollen evidence.  But the skeptics have a very different take.  They suggest that it could have blown in during the excavation.

All this  controversy pretty much overshadowed the analysis of the later occupation  at Shanidar.  So I decided to take a look at the book the Soleckis and colleague Anagnostis Agelarakis published in 2004  on the 13,000 -year-old human remains that they excavated. Sure enough,  there was the reference to a copper mineral bead or pendant that likely came from the burial of an adult female.  “The specimen,” wrote the authors,  “was bright green in color,  with a kind of scaly coating on its surface.”

Metallurgical studies show that the bead was made from the mineral malachite and that it contained a high amount of copper.   Moreover,  the authors searched for the source of the copper.  The closest known source was in Anatolia,  some 400 kilometers away from Shanidar– a very long trek away.   But here is the detail that I liked best from the archaeologists’ description.   The bead,  they said, “seemed to have been much worn.”

One can only imagine how much a long-ago woman prized this pretty,  sparkly bead that was so unlike the  plain-jane shell and stone ornaments that others wore.   And it is truly fascinating to think that the world of metal that we live in today may well have begun with a gleam at someone’s throat.

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