for National Geographic News
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 kilometers) away (Africa map).
"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 behavior.
"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.
The Moroccan find is not the first example of ancient Nassarius shells that might have been beads.
Last June the same team reported that snail shells found at sites in Israel and Algeria were likely to be the world's oldest bead jewelry.
Initial analysis of the shells from Israel indicated them to be between 100,000 and 135,000 years old, while the Algerian shells were determined to be more than 35,000 years old.
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.
The team has also uncovered similar shells at other sites in Morocco and are currently awaiting dating results.
"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."
Free Email News Updates
Sign up for our Inside National Geographic newsletter. Every two weeks we'll send you our top stories and pictures (see sample).
SOURCES AND RELATED WEB SITES