Gift List Circa 50,000 B.C.: Photos

Are you struggling with your holiday shopping list? Imagine what your options may have been more than 50,000 years ago.

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Ancient artifacts suggest that early humans coveted some items not always directly linked to personal survival. Like people today, our ancestors may have just enjoyed objects that were beautiful, eye-catching, status-lifting, fun or all of the above. The geode, described in the latest issue of Comptes Rendus Palevol, was found in the Cioarei-Boroşteni Cave, Romania. A Neanderthal had painted it with ochre. "The Neanderthal man must have certainly attached an aesthetic importance to it, while its having been painted with ochre was an addition meant to confer symbolic value," said Marin Cârciumaru of Valahia University and colleagues. The researchers also noted that "the geode was undoubtedly introduced into the cave by the Neanderthal," since they ruled out that it could have originated in the cave itself. Was the geode used in rituals, or was it just a treasured object of beauty? Its precise meaning to the Neanderthal remains a mystery for now.

Photos: Are You Related to Neanderthals?

Based on archaeological finds, necklaces made out of Spondylus (a spiky, colorful mollusk) were all the rage. This specimen has more of a reddish hue, but Michel Louis Séfériadès of CNRS notes that most are "a highly colored, very attractive purplish crimson." Séfériadès added that the shells were valued, early trade items and that they are now "found in the archaeological remains of settlements and cemeteries, in graves, and as isolated finds." Some of the shells were made into jewelry, including necklaces and bracelets.

Photos: Faces of Our Ancestors

We sing about "five gold rings," but the rings would more likely have been ivory back in the day -- as in around 50,000 years ago, before ivory-producing animals were mostly hunted to extinction. Early humans in northern regions, for example, made rings out of mammoth ivory. A Neanderthal site at Grotte du Renne, France yielded a carefully crafted ivory ring, as well as grooved and perforated "personal ornaments," according to archaeologist Paul Mellars of Cambridge University.

Bronze Age Bling: Black Stone, Amber and Shells

Charcoal (shown here), ochre and other materials were applied to the face by early

Homo sapiens

as well as by other human subspecies. The ochre, used to paint the geode, mentioned earlier, was also used as makeup, hair dye, paint (to create rock and cave art), as well as to color garments.

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Early humans used combs made out of shells and fish bones to both comb their hair and as personal decoration. The shell from the Venus comb murex, a large predatory sea snail, is just one species that seems perfect for this purpose. Gibraltar Museum researchers Clive Finlayson and Kimberley Brown also found evidence that Neanderthals valued large, elaborate feathers, which the scientists suspect were worn by the individuals.

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Nearly all early cultures had coveted figurines holding probable symbolic value. Some of the earliest carved objects are known as "Venus" figurines. They present women with exaggerated sexual features. Their exact meaning remains unclear.

Pendants made of animal teeth were common and probably served many different functions, such as showing the hunter's success, offering symbolic protection, and just as fashion. Some of the funkiest-looking teeth were made into worn objects. Animal teeth could be on a gift list dated to 540,000 years ago, and possibly earlier, as a recent study in the journal Nature found that a population of

Homo erectus

at Java, Indonesia, was collecting shark teeth and using them as tools and possibly as ornamentation.

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Tools suggest that early humans were making baskets, but the origins of basket weaving around the world remain controversial. That's because natural materials such as wood, grass and animal remains usually decay over a relatively short period of time. The oldest known baskets have been carbon dated to about 12,000 years ago, but it is suspected that they were made many thousands of years before that.

As the saying goes, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade. So it is that people who lived in caves made objects out of cave materials. For example, Cârciumaru and colleagues, who found the ancient painted geode, unearthed containers made out of stalagmites. These are calcium carbonate deposits found projecting upwards from the floors of limestone caves. Continually dripping water from precipitation leads to their formation.

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The world's oldest known musical instrument is a bone flute. While the earliest excavated flute dates to about 42,000 years ago, comparable flutes were probably made much earlier. Flutes, like most of the items on this list, were not essential to survival, but yet they somehow contributed to the prehistoric peoples' quality of life.

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