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This 23,000-Year-Old Bead, the World’s Oldest Known Piece of Colored Jewelry, Is Now on View in Japan

Unearthed five years ago, the find debuted in October at the Okinawa Prefectural Museum and Art Museum.

23,000-Year-Old Bead in Japan Okinawa Prefectural Museum and Art Museum

Last week, the discovery of the oldest known piece of artificially colored jewelry in Japan was unveiled. Although the Mainchi reported that the 23,000-year-old bead was actually unearthed five years ago, the finding was made only made public this month in anticipation of its debut at the Okinawa Prefectural Museum and Art Museum in Naha, Japan. The bead, which is considered a prime example of early creative development, is expected to provide valuable information about Paleolithic culture.

The bead was carved from a tusk shell and painted with a red pigment, only of which traces remain in the groove of the shell. It was found on the coast of Okinawa in the Sakitari Cave site and is thought to be from the Upper Paleolithic Period at roughly 23,000 years old.

“It appears ancient people took a lot of time and effort to make these objects, from finding the shells to coloring them,” Seiji Kadowaki, a lecturer at the Nagoya University Museum who specializes in prehistoric archaeology, told the Mainichi. “The decorative objects may have been used as tools for communication.” 

In the same cave, a couple other notable objects of human history have been found, among them the world’s oldest fishing hook (which is also made of tusk shells) and a lump of pigment that would have been used like a crayon. The cave was continuously inhabited by successive generations of people until the Jomon Period 15,000 years ago.

The bead is currently on view as part of an exhibition devoted to interchanges between humans, Okinawa dugong (an endangered mammal found in nearby waters) and coral which opened earlier this month.

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