Jewelry as a sign of human intelligence


I had a-ha moment earlier this summer when someone on a jewelry mailing list posted a link to this article:

‘The interesting thing about necklaces and this kind of behaviour is that it is symbolic. When we wear items like this, we are sending a message,’ said co-author Professor Chris Stringer of London’s Natural History Museum….The objects provide a clear example of the complex, symbolic behaviour that would appear to set our species apart from the animal world.

Following several links I realized that archeological discoveries of shell beads and other artistic objects were leading scientists to propose that the development of human intelligence occurred even earlier in history than previouly thought.

“Christopher Henshilwood and his team have told Science magazine the find is probably one of the first examples of abstract thought seen in our ancestors. ‘The beads carry a symbolic message. Symbolism is the basis for all that comes afterwards including cave art, personal ornaments and other sophisticated behaviours,’ Professor Henshilwood, of the University of Bergen, Norway, told BBC News Online.

‘Even in today’s world, where you’re talking about computers – it’s about storing information outside of the human brain. The evidence from Blombos Cave is that humans were using symbolism 75,000 years ago.’ “

So, jewelry is like a computer. It’s a physical object, created deliberately, with a specific code of structured meaning and function, to extend the scope of the human brain into the outside, physical world. And it’s being used as archeological evidence of the origins of human intelligence. Fantastic!! It was a moment of clarity for me about why I make jewelry. With all the struggle of creation and the decision to spend time creating jewelry as opposed to doing anything else, one can’t help but ask oneself “why?”. For one thing, I tend to ask myself why I pursue the artistic, rather than the intellectual. And these articles helped me to see that, for me, the two aren’t really separate.

One comes across the idea that tool-making is what separates humans from animals. But there are examples of animals using and even modifying objects deliberately so that they will be more useful in a given task. This would seem to be tool-making. Perhaps instead we are animals that wear jewelry? I like that idea.

So this a-ha was followed by several more. Such things have a way of snowballing. Books were read. The internet yielded up much fodder for thought. My head has been a buzz. And now I find myself in a very different place than I was six months or a year ago. I have realized that, for me, the stories of why I create and how, are inseparable from the making and the objects. And the stories help the objects get made. Perhaps paying attention to the thinking will help the stuff get made. And so, a blog. We’ll see.

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