Earliest known 'bling' revealed

Fresh analysis of beads made from seashells by a team led by a UCL (University College London) researcher reveals that modern humans used jewellery at least 25,000 years earlier than previously thought.

Researchers from the UK, France and Israel report in the journal Science that they re-examined beads, originally excavated from a site in Israel and one in Algeria in the early half of the 20th Century, using elemental and chemical analysis. Results show the beads date from between 100,000 to 135,000 years ago – which is much earlier than a recent significant find of beads excavated in South Africa that date from 75,000 years ago.

Personal ornaments, along with art, are generally considered as archaeological proof of an aptitude for symbolic thinking and the findings have major implications for the debates about the origins of behaviourally modern humans.

Dr Marian Vanhaeren, of the AHRC Centre for the Evolutionary Analysis of Cultural Behaviour, UCL Institute of Archaeology, and lead author of the study, says:

"Symbolically mediated behaviour has emerged as 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 main challenge for paleoanthropology is establishing when in human evolution this ability developed. Archaeological evidence suggests that Anatomically Modern Humans (AMH) from Africa were also behaviourally modern before 40,000 but until now evidence has remained scant.

"Given that the same shell species were unearthed at distinct geographical sites suggests that a symbolic tradition extended across the Eastern and Southern Mediterranean. It supports the hypothesis that a widespread tradition of beadwork existed in North Africa and the countries of Western Asia well before the arrival of AMH in Europe."

Human remains excavated from Ethiopia demonstrate that Homo sapiens in Africa were anatomically modern 160,000 years ago, but debate continues over when and where humans first became behaviourally modern.

In 2004 engraved ochre and Nassarius kraussianus seashell beads bearing human-made perforations and traces of use were discovered at the Blombos Cave, South Africa and were dated to 75,000 years ago. The finding suggests that humans became behaviourally modern much earlier than previously thought but it has been hotly contested because of a lack of corroborating evidence from other sites.

The seashell beads that have been re-examined were originally unearthed at a Middle Palaeolithic site at Es-Skhul, Mount Carmel, Israel and from the type-site of the Aterian industry, of Oued Djebbana, Bir-el-Ater, Algeria. The shells from Skhul are currently held in the Department of Palaeontology, Natural History Museum (NHM), London, and the specimen from Oued Djebbana in the Department of Prehistory, Musée de l'Homme, Paris.

Remoteness from seashore – up to 200 km in the case of Oued Djebban – and detailed comparison to natural shell assemblages indicates in both cases there was deliberate selection and transportation by humans of Nassarius gibbosulus seashells for symbolic use.

Dr Vanhaeren added: "Personal ornaments have many different – and often multiple – functions. They may be used to beautify the body, function as 'love letters' in courtship, or as amulets that express individual or group identity. The function of the oldest beads in Africa and Eurasia were probably different because in the first case we have only one bead type and in the second a rich variety of types.

"We think that the African evidence may point to the beads being used in gift-giving systems which function to strengthen social and economic relationships. The European evidence suggests the beads were used as markers of ethnic, social and personal identity."

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The work was funded by the 'Origin of Man, Language and Languages' programme of the European Science Foundation, the French Ministry of Research and postdoctoral grants of the French Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique and the Fyssen Foundation.

Notes to editors

The paper, 'Middle Palaeolithic Shell Beads in Israel and Algeria' will be published in the June 23 edition of the journal Science. The authors are: Marian Vanhaeren (1), Francesco d'Errico (2), Chris Stringer (3), Sarah L. James (4), Jonathan A. Todd (3), Henk K. Mienis (5)

(1) Centre for the Evolution of Cultural Diversity, University College London, 31-34 Gordon Square, London WC1H OPY, UK. Ethnologie préhistorique, CNRS UMR 7041, 21 Allée de l'Université, F-92023 Nanterre, France. (2) Institut de Préhistoire et de Géologie du Quaternaire, CNRS UMR 5199, Avenue des Facultés, 33405 Talence, France. Department of Anthropology, The George Washington University, Washington DC. (3) Department of Palaeontology, The Natural History Museum, London SW7 5BD. (4) Department of Mineralogy, The Natural History Museum, London SW7 5BD. (5) Department of Zoology, Tel Aviv University, 69978 Tel Aviv, Israel.

For further information, please contact:

Judith H Moore
UCL Media Relations
Tel: 44-0-20-7679-7678 (int: 07678)
Mobile: 44-0-77333-075-96
Out-of-hours: 44-0-7917-271-364
Email: judith.moore@ucl.ac.uk

Dr Marian Vanhaeren
AHRC Centre for the Evolutionary Analysis of Cultural Behaviour
UCL Institute of Archaeology
Mobile: 33-0-614167010
Email: m.vanhaeren@ucl.ac.uk.

About UCL
Founded in 1826, UCL was the first English university established after Oxford and Cambridge, the first to admit students regardless of race, class, religion or gender, and the first to provide systematic teaching of law, architecture and medicine. In the government's most recent Research Assessment Exercise, 59 UCL departments achieved top ratings of 5* and 5, indicating research quality of international excellence.

UCL is the fourth-ranked UK university in the 2005 league table of the top 500 world universities produced by the Shanghai Jiao Tong University. UCL alumni include Mahatma Gandhi (Laws 1889, Indian political and spiritual leader); Jonathan Dimbleby (Philosophy 1969, writer and television presenter); Junichiro Koizumi (Economics 1969, Prime Minister of Japan); Lord Woolf (Laws 1954, former Lord Chief Justice of England & Wales); Alexander Graham Bell (Phonetics 1860s, inventor of the telephone); and members of the band Coldplay.


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