Finding a Common Bandwidth: Causes of Convergence and Diversity in Paleolithic Beads

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60 Scopus citations


Ornaments (aka beads) are the most common and ubiquitous art form of the Late Pleistocene. This fact suggests a common, fundamental function somewhat different to other kinds of Paleolithic art. While the capacity for artistic expression could be considerably older than the record of preserved (durable) art would suggest, beads signal a novel development in the efficiency and flexibility of visual communication technology. The Upper Paleolithic was a period of considerable regional differentiation in material culture, yet there is remarkable consistency in the dominant shapes and sizes of Paleolithic beads over more than 25,000 years and across vast areas, even though they were made from diverse materials and, in the case of mollusc shells, diverse taxonomic families. Cultural and linguistic continuity cannot explain the meta-pattern. The evidence indicates that widespread adoption of beads of redundant form was not only about local and subregional communication of personal identity or group affinity, but also an expansion in the geographic scale of social networks. The conformity of the beads grew spontaneously and in a self-organizing manner from individuals’ interest in tapping into the network as a means for spreading social and environmental risk.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)51-64
Number of pages14
JournalBiological Theory
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 2014


  • Communication technology
  • Shell beads
  • Social networks
  • Upper Paleolithic Eurasia

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • History and Philosophy of Science


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