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 Leaves and Human Adornment

For many years I have suggested that plants served as the first human adornments. At least that seems to have been the case in India, where most of the tribal groups (adavasis) wear plants to the near exclusion of other things. I pointed this out in the first scientific paper I ever read (Francis 1997; for those of who checked the reference, yes, it took them 17 years to publish it).

Some years later in Plants as Human Adornment in India (Francis 1984) fifteen leaves were identified as fulfilling this function (out of 169 plant species). They include well-known species such as teak, coconut and date palm, orchid, mango and banana. They were worn on garlands, through the nose, cut or wrapped as bracelets and for skirts.

The oddest entry is that in 1916 an Anglo-Indian team reported that Maria Gonds women wore only teak leaves. Twenty-two years later the Gonds laughed at the idea that anyone would be so poor as to wear leaves and denied it ever happened among them.

Leaves, of course, also serve as models for jewelry elements in other media.

Jade leaves used for a hat ornament. China, probably 19th century.

Glass jade imitation leaf. Chinese, probably 19th century.

Japanese glass leaf, ca. 1950. Notice the tendrils curling around it.

Two small silver leaf-shaped pendants. Iran. Date unknown.

A palm leaf, a glass ring (signifying a
bangle) and a few potti beads from a manglesutra.

The rolled palm leaf is inserted into a hole in the earlobe to enlarge it for larger ear studs later in life. This combination is thrown on floats during a festival in Karnataka, India. 1980.

The most sacred leaf in India is the pipal, from the Ficus religiosa tree. It was under this tree (also called bo or bodhi) that Buddha received enlightenment.

This leaf is from the original tree, now long gone in upper India. However, the Emperor Asoka (273-232 BC) distributed seedling from the tree to other Buddhist communities. Perhaps the only one left is in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka. I would not have been allowed to pick it from the tree, but taking leaves that had fallen to the ground was permitted.

Silver filigree pipal pendant made in Cuttack, India ca. 1980.

Mango leaves are strung up in India at any excuse for a party. No one wants to take them down afterwards, so dried mango leaves are seen everywhere. When I saw these hand-made vinyl cutouts (the veins were indented) in the Mangalore bazaar, they were mine for pennies. 1980.

Young Koreans learn how to make beads from a special flour by a Japanese process taught in classes. These are two half-gilded "Flower Flour" leaves ca. 1985/

Sun-dried beads made in the Mexican village of Mayatepec, Guerrero ca. 1985.


Francis, Peter Jr.

1984 Plants as Human Adornment in India Economic Botany 38(2):194-209
1997 An Interdisciplinary Approach to the Question of Early Human Adornment in India. pp. 218-231 in V.D. Misra and J.N. Pal, eds. Indian Prehistory: 1980 Department of Ancient History, Culture an Anthropology, University of Allahabad, Allahabad, India.


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