Ancient Shells May Be World's Oldest Bead Jewelry

Kate Ravilious
for National Geographic News
June 22, 2006
People may have been wearing ornaments as much as a hundred thousand years ago, according to a new finding.

Recent analysis of three ancient seashells reveals that they are likely to have been used as beads, potentially pushing back the evidence for personal decoration by 25,000 years.

The finding adds weight to the theory that modern human behavior emerged gradually. This theory contradicts the belief that a sudden creative explosion took place in Europe around 45,000 years ago.

The shells were excavated from Mount Carmel in Israel and Oued Djebbana, Algeria, in the 1930s and 1940s.

But it is only now that scientists have been able to accurately date the shells and study their significance.

Marian Vanhaeren from University College London and her colleagues found the shells while searching through museum collections at the Natural History Museum in London and the Museum of Man in Paris.

The shells contain holes that are likely to have been human-made, the scientists say.

"They were either perforated by people, or [people] deliberately collected the few perforated ones," said Francesco d'Errico of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Talence, France.

D'Errico is a co-author of the study, which will appear in tomorrow's issue of the journal Science.

Seashells Found Far Inland

The marine shells were found many miles from the sea, the researchers point out.

"Oued Djebbana is almost 200 kilometers [125 miles] from the sea, which means these shells were certainly taken by humans and brought to the site," d'Errico said.

By chemically matching sediment samples from a shell exterior and a human bone from the Israeli site, Vanhaeren and her team were able to date the shell to between 100,000 and 135,000 years ago.

Radiocarbon dating of the Algerian site shows that the shell found there is more than 35,000 years old.

The researchers believe the African shell could be up to 90,000 years old, based on the technology and style of stone tools found there.

Creative Explosion?

Until recently the earliest evidence for sophisticated human behavior—including the use of specialized tools and personal decoration—came from 40,000-year-old sites in Europe.

This gave rise to the theory that a sudden creative explosion took place among ancient humans, possibly due to changes within the brain.

But this theory has been hotly contested over the last two years, following discoveries of beads from far older sites.

In March 2004 John Bower at the University of California, Davis, and his colleagues announced the discovery of 70,000-year-old ostrich eggshell beads in Tanzania, Africa (see Tanzania map).

(Read "Is Bead Find Proof Modern Thought Began in Africa?" [2004].)

Meanwhile, a study by Vanhaeren, d'Errico, and others, published in April 2004, described 75,000-year-old perforated shells from a cave in South Africa.

(Read "Oldest Jewelry? "Beads" Discovered in African Cave" [2004].)

"The latest evidence indicates that people used a symbolic way of communicating well before the supposed revolution 40,000 years ago," d'Errico said of the new study.

But not everyone is convinced by the team's latest findings.

"The evidence that the new shells are beads seems weak to me," said Richard Klein, an anthropologist at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California.

"The evidence [from the South African cave research] is better, if only because there are many more specimens and their [archaeological] context is much better documented."

Beads or Shells?

Others support the idea that the early shells are beads.

"I am sure the shells were used by humans, either to adorn the dead or for day-to-day decoration," said Daniella Bar-Yosef Mayer, an archaeologist at the University of Haifa in Israel.

She first identified the Israeli shell beads and wrote about them in the French journal Paléorient in 2005.

D'Errico is confident that further excavations will uncover more shell beads and show that they were a common ornamentation prior to 40,000 years ago.

"We have data from other sites, which are unpublished as yet. The Science paper is just the first in a series of more robust data," he said.

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