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Beetle jewelry was the fashion in Utah two thousand years ago

A necklace made of brownish-green shiny beetle legs, with a opal-colored pendant in the center, sitting on a black background
Michael Terlep
A close-up of the necklace found in Atlatl Cave in Bears Ears National Monument, including beetle beads and a pendant.

Anew paper describes the importance of two pieces of jewelry found in Bears Ears National Monument…. rare necklaces made from beetles. These unusual objects offer a glimpse into the daily lives of Indigenous peoples who lived in the region more than two thousand years ago. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny spoke about the necklaces with Kaibab National Forest archaeologist Michael Terlep.

Describe these two very unusual pieces of jewelry.

So we have two items of beetle adornment… The beetle is known as Cotinus mutabilis which is fairly common throughout Southern Arizona and even gets into Flagstaff. They’re more commonly known as the green June beetle or fig-eater beetle… They were pulling the back legs off this beetle, which is very iridescent and very colorful. Also very small; each back leg segment is only about five about millimeters long. So they had exceptionally great dexterity, and they were stringing them through these pieces of yucca cordage and using them as necklaces.

Wow. And how old are they?

In general, one item dates to 60 BC and the other dates to 70 BC, so about a ten-year span for these two items to date to.

Do you think the jewelry indicates that the insects were considered equally rare or valuable as something like turquoise or obsidian, or do you think maybe those other things weren’t available and insects were being used instead?

That’s one of the things we are arguing with this piece of research is that these items would have been rare and hard to produce. Cotinus mutabilis currently does not actually—we don’t have any examples of this beetle currently living within the Bears Ears area. So this area was probably on the marginal habitat of where they were normally surviving…. So production and collecting all these beetles—you can only collect them during 2-3 months during the summer, during the monsoon season, so they would have been rare and only in a limited time… It would have taken significant time to collect them all and then obviously produce this really find cordage and string them—time that could have been better spent caring for your children, tending to the crops. So these items, their rarity does suggest the potential that these could have been related to some sort of status. Not everybody would have been able to take the time or the resources to make these necklaces.

Right, because it would have been time consuming to make that, so it shows at least some people had time to make art.

Exactly, or purchase art, or trade for it. They had resources that maybe others did not.

I’m just curious—using insects as a fashion item, how common is that?

Throughout the world it’s actually fairly common…. In world history and world ethnography, we defiantly see iridescent beetle wings, primarily, being used. They’re used throughout Asia, India, Papua New Guinea, well into South America… We even have examples of in the late 1800s a performance of Macbeth being completed, where the dress had over 1,000 beetle wings.

And the descendants of the people who made these particular items, the Hopi and the Zuni, still live in the region today. I’m curious if you know whether they continue on this tradition of insect jewelry.

There’s definitely insect jewelry being produced especially with the Navajo culture and the Hopi, and we also do find within the ethnographic record, insects are exceptionally important to all of these Southwestern groups here, here in Northern Arizona and across the Southwest.

And where are these two items being housed now?

Both items are housed at the Edge of the Cedars State Park in Blanding, Utah. I believe the necklace is actually currently on display. So people can go see it.

Very cool. That’s good to know. Michael, thank you so much for speaking with me.

Thanks for having me, I appreciate it.

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.