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Oldest known beads reported found

June 22, 2006
Special to World Science

Three shells with holes bored into their centers, excavated in Israel and Algeria, may be the oldest known personal decoration, researchers say in a new paper.

The two perforated shells from Skhul. The vertical line represents 1 cm (0.4 in). (Courtesy Marian Vanhaeren and Francesco d'Errico)

The discovery may change scientists’ views of how human culture emerged, according to the researchers.

Until recently, scientists generally thought the first signs of modern human culture appeared 40,000 years ago, when anatomically modern humans arrived in Europe. 

But the beads appear to be more than 100,000 years old, the new study found, suggesting modern behavior began earlier and developed more gradually. 

In a previous study, researchers described a discovery of 75,000 year-old perforated shells from Blombos cave in South Africa. 

In the new work, Marian Vanhaeren at University College London and colleagues searched through museum collections. They found bead-like shells from the archaeological sites of Skhul, in Israel, and Oued Djebbana, in Algeria. 

The shells were the same genus, Nassarius, as those from Blombos, and were punctured similarly, they noted. 

Dates from Skhul indicate the two shells from that site are more than 100,000 years old, they reported. And based on the style of tools at Oued Djebbana, they added, the shell from that site could be up to 90,000 years old. 

The sample is small, the researchers admitted. But they argued that Skhul and Oued Djebbana are so far from the sea that the shells were probably brought there intentionally, probably for beadworking. By studying modern Nassarius shells, they also concluded it’s extremely unlikely that the holes occurred naturally.

The study appears in the June 23 issue of the research journal Science. “Our paper supports the scenario that modern humans in Africa developed behaviors that are considered modern quite early in time, so that in fact these people were probably not just biologically modern but also culturally and cognitively modern, at least to some degree,” said study coauthor Francesco d’Errico of the National Center for Scientific Research in Talence, France.

Personal ornaments, along with art, are generally seen as evidence of an aptitude for symbolic thinking, the researchers noted.

“Symbolically mediated behaviour,” Vanhaeren said, is “one of the few unchallenged and universally accepted markers of modernity. A key characteristic of all symbols is that their meaning is assigned by arbitrary, socially constructed conventions and it permits the storage and display of information.”

The shells, N. gibbosulus, are from scavenging marine snails that live in shallow waters and are now only found in the central-eastern Mediterranean, according to the team.

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