Beadwork Strip

Associated Smithsonian Expert: Gwyneira Isaac, Ph.D.

Dr. Gwyneira Isaac with Native American Pottery

Dr. Gwyneira Isaac works in the Department of Anthropology as the Curator of North American Ethnology at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Her research focuses on investigating how societies develop relationships with their past and how this is expressed through material culture and museums. She also examines how media and technology are used within the field of ethnology, museums, and anthropology as a whole. She specializes in the American Southwest, Pueblo of Zuni, Knowledge Systems, Material Culture, Visual Anthropology and the History of Anthropology. She has a Ph.D. in Social and Cultural Anthropology from the University of Oxford, England. Previously, she was Associate Professor and Director of the ASU Museum of Anthropology, at the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at Arizona State University.

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A woman in native dress weaves a blanket on a vertical loom
Photo Lot 59, LOC, Small Mounts, Tribe Id, Navaho, Weaving 03282300, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution

About Textiles

One characteristic unique to humans is the use of textiles for clothing, decorative purposes, and art. Archaeologists have found evidence of textile use as early as 100,000 years ago, mostly in the form of animal pelts. Beginning in 5000 B.C. other fabrics emerged such as cotton, silk and linen. Textiles can be used by people in many different contexts. Depending on the fabric and manufacturing process they can indicate the status or wealth of an individual. The design or adornments, such as beadwork, can also be used to indicate family or group affiliation of an individual, and can give clues to the social organization of the particular society. Many cultures have special textiles that are used or worn by participants in religious or ceremonial contexts. For example, women in South Africa, like many regions of the world, are often given specific clothing items by their families to wear on the day of their wedding. Textiles have also been important in trade and commerce in most countries throughout the world. For example, a famous trade route, the Silk Road, named for the lucrative trade in silk thread and fabric operated in various forms over the past 2,000 years connecting Asia to the Mediterranean. Textiles can also be used as a type of art or as a medium for telling stories or depicting historical events.

Personal adornments can come in many forms
Photo by Smithsonian Institution, Department of Anthropology, E428590

About Personal Adornments

Along with textiles, people have been decorating the body for hundreds of thousands of years. Personal adornments come in many shapes and sizes and can be used to signify different things to and about the individual wearing them. Personal adornments are often thought of in the form of jewelry, but they can also be textiles, headdresses, bags, or personal belongings that are important to the wearer. For example, many Native American tribes use beading to signify family ties or social status. Humans have often made jewelry and other adornments out of items that were available in their environment. Shells from the ocean and beads made of glass are two popular materials. They can be strung together or used to embellish textiles to show personal style or individualism. Personal adornments have also been used to signify leadership or to represent rites of passage. In some cultures they are used to protect the wearer against evil spirits. What sort of personal adornments do you wear that have meaning?

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Baule woodcarvers at work, Yagolikro village, Ivory Coast
Photograph by Eliot Elisofon, 1972. Image no. EEPA EECL 6900. Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution

About Humans and the Environment

Humans have always manipulated their environment, whether by acquiring food, making and using tools, or other aspects of daily life. They are constantly interacting with their environment on a daily basis. By using the available materials, humans have created shelter, made tools, created containers and vessels, and produced items of personal and cultural significance. Many of these resources are naturally occurring, such as stones, minerals, animal bones, or organic fibers from plants, while others are made from combining materials. The process of acquiring these materials and the manufacturing process can be traditional practices that are passed down from one generation to another. Because materials are unique to the location of different communities and cultures, by studying the types of materials, as well as animal remains found and the processes used to manipulate them, anthropologists and researchers can learn about the daily activities and lifestyles of the cultures they are studying. In what ways do you interact with your environment on a daily basis?

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