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.

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