Health/Sci-TechLifestyleVOLUME 18 ISSUE # 38

A child’s ornate necklace highlights ancient farmers’ social complexity

A Middle Eastern child interred in a stone-lined grave around 9,000 years ago wore an elaborate necklace that illustrates the complexity of social life in an early farming community, researchers say.

More than 2,500 stone and shell beads strewn across the child’s upper body, along with a double-holed stone pendant positioned behind the neck and a mother-of-pearl ring laying on the chest, originally formed the impressive necklace, archaeologist Hala Alarashi and colleagues report in PLOS ONE. Perforations around the upper half of the mother-of-pearl ring held strings or cords for seven rows of beads that connected to the pendant, they say.

“This imposing necklace was made to be buried with a child who had important social status,” says Alarashi, of the Spanish National Research Council in Barcelona. “We don’t know why this particular child was special.” Artisans fashioned the necklace out of stones and shells imported from different parts of the Middle East. Two amber beads represent the oldest yet discovered.

The intricate necklace had come apart by the time the youngster’s grave was excavated in 2018 at a site in southern Jordan called Ba’ja. No strings or cords were preserved. So Alarashi and colleagues reconstructed the ornament first by analyzing the distribution of beads on the child’s skeletal remains. Microscopic differences in the intensity of wear in the beads’ openings helped to determine the position of each bead in strung rows. Comparisons of the partially preserved ring to similar objects previously found at Ba’ja let the researchers estimate how many necklace cords it could have held.

Alarashi suspects that a large group of mourners gathered at the densely inhabited village, located on a mountain plateau, to lay to rest the necklace-bedecked child, who was approximately 8 years old. Radiocarbon dating of charred wood bits puts the occupation of this farming village at between 7400 B.C. and 6800 B.C. Public rituals at gravesites occurred as early as around 12,000 years ago in the Middle East. The reconstructed necklace is now on display at Jordan’s Petra Museum in Wadi Musa.