Tiny shells coated in red clay are the oldest known human ornamentation, an international team of archaeologists recently announced. So far, 13 shells dated to 82,000 years ago have been found in the Grotte des Pigeons at Taforalt in eastern Morocco. Each shell has a hole pierced through it and a covering of red ochre, an ancient pigment made from clay.
“The fact that they are colored and have deliberate perforations indicates that they were used as ornamentation,” said Nick Barton from the University of Oxford in England, one of the archaeologists on the team. Some of the shell “beads” show signs of wear inside the perforation, indicating that they were strung together as necklaces or bracelets. “They were definitely meant to be seen,” Barton said.
The shells come from a genus of marine snail called Nassarius, which is not found along the Moroccan shoreline today. The nearest place where the snails live is an island off Tunisia that lies more than 800 miles (1,280 kilometres) away .
“It is possible that these beads were brought here from Tunisia and were very special objects,” Barton said.
In a paper published in the June issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the archaeologists suggest that the beads mark a shift in human development and the beginnings of modern cultural behaviour. “We think that they were capable of thinking symbolically and able to use one thing to represent another,” Barton said. Possibly the beads were used to establish group identity and indicate where certain people belonged. Similar cultural signs, such as specialized tools and personal decoration, didn’t arrive in Europe until around 40,000 years ago.
For their latest study the team established the Moroccan shells’ ages using four different dating techniques. This means the beads qualify as the world’s oldest, they say, because the shells are the only ones to be dated so conclusively.
Abdeljalil Bouzouggar, from the Moroccan Institute of Archaeology, and colleagues found the shells in the Grotte des Pigeons alongside burnt stone remains in well-layered soil. “Shells from other sites may turn out to be even older,” Barton said, “and we may well be looking at ornamentation beyond a hundred thousand years ago”
The source of this article is http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2007/06/070607-oldest-beads.html