News from the cave known as Grotte des Pigeons, Taforalt, in Eastern Morocco, where for the past ‘four to five’ years, the Institute of Archaeology from Oxford University have been excavating, during the process of which they have discovered beads fashioned from shells.
The beads themselves comprise 12 Nassarius shells – Nassarius are molluscs found in warm seas and coral reefs in America, Asia and the Pacific – which had holes in them and appeared to have been suspended or hung. They were covered in red ochre.
Similar beads have been found at sites in Algeria, Israel and South Africa which are thought to date back to around the same time or slightly after the finds from Taforalt.
The other sites are known to us as Skhul Cave, situated on Mount Carmel, in Israel, and of course, the 77,000 bp finds from Blombos Cave down in South Africa; 3 beads from the Skhul site may be 100,000 years old – moreover, there is a single pierced shell from Oued Djebbana in Algeria, which is thought to be 90,000 years old, based on the stone tools found in the same context.
It is notable that shells from all these sites are Nassarius, and that in each case the sites were situated some distance from contemporary coastlines – it wasn’t as if people were just strolling down to the beach and collecting what they found lying there – instead, it would appear that people were deliberately embarking on journeys of a day or more, with the specified intention of collecting, and returning with their desired materials, choosing only this type of shell for perforation, in some cases covered in red ochre, and then worn as personal adornment.
It is this uniformity of shell selection and collection methods, and the way in which they were perforated and ochred that raises questions as to whether there was a single cultural or symbolic driver at work, or whether these behavioural events, ostensibly separated by tens of thousands of years in time, as well as considerable geographic distances, were spontaneous and exclusive events, or part of a tradition or custom that was somehow communicated in some way that we could recognise as being continuous. Further, the ubiquity of red ochre throughout the Middle and Upper Palaeolithic is remarkable in itself, though whether it carried the same meaning(s) to the various and disparate groups of humans who used them isn’t known – for example Neanderthals also used red ochre, though whether this was an initiative on their part that was passed on to early modern humans, is again, unknown.
In any event, finds such as these once again appear to demonstrate that the so-called Eurasian ‘cultural revolution’ at 40,000 bp was merely a continuation of processes that had been quietly running in the background, upwards of 50,000-60,000 years beforehand. The notable aspect of the Upper Palaeolithic event is the seeming increase in production rates, as this type of cultural expression – adornment, decoration, including portable and parietal art, went mainstream, possibly aided by greater concentrations and networks of humans.
Of equal, or possibly even more interest than these latest perforated beads from Morocco, is the Taforalt cave itself, (amongst others in the north and east of Morocco, referred to as the Maghreb, in which a rich diversity of artefacts and human remains have been found, dating back through the Upper and Middle Paleolithic.
In this region, the Upper Palaeolithic, is called the Ibero-maurusian, and didn’t begin until shortly before 17,000 bp, although my scant knowledge of this area regarding exactly how the Upper and Middle Palaeolithic differed from one another prevents me from giving more detail or comment here.
I get the impression that there is as yet no clear idea of the sequential nature of what humans were up to in this part of the world, and it seems a great deal more random than the Eurasian equivalent, altohugh this may be partly because more archaeology needs to be done, as well as attempting to identify which episodes of cooling climate corresponded to the way in which humans reacted to these events.
There are several human burials in the cave, dating from the Iberomaurusian Upper Palaeolithic, with the earliest thought to date to around 12.675 bp.
Individuals were buried in a crouched or seated position and are closely associated with horn cores of various sizes, which are absent elsewhere in the deposit.
Other burials have been identified but not yet fully excavated, including those of infants, children and adults.
The new excavations provide the first opportunity to record human mortuary activity at Grotte de Pigeons in detail and may contribute to a revised interpretation of the existing osteological sample.
We will now study the human fossils for evidence of diet, activity patterns, skeletal and dental disease, and cultural modification in order to develop an overall understanding of human lifestyle during this period.
The layer in which the perforated shells were found is described thus:
One of the most interesting layers contains evidence of thin, bifacially worked foliate points, normally indicative of the Aterian (Middle Palaeolithic), and numbers of perforated marine shells. The latter appear to have been imported from a contemporary coastline which would have been approximately 35km from the cave in the Upper Pleistocene.
Work there looks set to continue for another 4 or 5 years, during which time it is hoped to place this site within its wider context of modern human activity in Africa; although these finds are indicative of a more complex suite of human activities dating from ca. 100,000 bp, there is no clear indication as to why these humans, who had been anatomically modern since around 195,000 bp, should have started behaving in ways that were dramatically different from those of their ancestors over the previous 95,0000 years. (TJ)
08/06/07 update: National Geographic: Oldest Jewelry Found In Morocco Cave
and: A Figurine From The African Acheulean, Robert G. Bednarik, Current Anthropology, Volume 44, Number 3, June 2003,
Study Reveals Oldest Jewellery (June 2006)