Previously on Anthropology.net, we saw the news from Morocco regarding the discovery of ochre-stained beads fashioned from 13 pierced shells of Nassarius gibbosulus, a coastal dwelling mollusc, which in this instance were collected from a beach some 40km/25 miles distant from the Cave of Pigeons in Taforalt – indicating that this particular resource was considered valuable enough to make a round trip – assuming the cave was the point of departure and return – which might well have meant an overnight stay near the beach was required, before the return journey was undertaken the following morning. To further recap…

“By taking into account the distance of the coast at that time and the comparison with natural alteration of shells of the same species on today’s beaches, the two scientists inferred that prehistoric humans had selected, transported and very probably perforated the shells and colored them red for a symbolic use. Moreover, some shells showed traces of wear, which suggests that they were used as adornments for a long time: they were very likely worn as necklaces or bracelets, or sewn onto clothes.”

The shells and the context in which they were found were subjected to a veritable barrage of dating techniques, and as far as I can tell, the 82,000 bp date seems secure , and they can also be considered in a wider context…

“Noticing that the beads belong to the same species of shell and bear the same type of perforation as those uncovered in previous excavations at the paleolothic sites at Skhul in Israel and at Oued Djebbana in Algeria , Marian Vanhaeren and Francesco d’Errico were thus able to confirm the validity of these two discoveries. Everything therefore seems to indicate that 80 000 years ago the populations of the eastern and southern Mediterranean shared the same symbolic traditions. To back up this hypothesis they point to other sites in Morocco where Nassarius gibbosulus beads from the same period are also found.”

The authors go on to make an interesting observation regarding the the differences between shell use in the Middle Palaeolithic of Africa and the Near East, and their later use in the Upper Palaeolithic of Eurasia, from about 40,000 bp onwards…

“Unlike Africa and the Near East, where only one or two types of shell are found, in Eurasia from the beginning of the Upper Palaeolithic onwards tens or even hundreds of different types of beads have been described.”

It was reported last June that similar shell beads, possibly dating back even further to 90,000 or 100,000 bp were found…

The three shell beads are between 90,000 and 100,000 years old, according to an international research team.

Two of the ancient beads come from Skhul Cave on the slopes of Mount Carmel in Israel. The other comes from the site of Oued Djebbana in Algeria.

All three shells come from the same genus of marine mollusc known as Nassarius; they were probably selected for their size and deliberately perforated with a sharp flint tool.

And of course, in April 2004, came this news from Blombos, down in South Africa…

Perforated shells found at South Africa’s Blombos Cave appear to have been strung as beads about 75,000 years ago-making them 30,000 years older than any previously identified personal ornaments. Archaeologists excavating the site on the on the coast of the Indian Ocean discovered 41 shells, all with holes and wear marks in similar positions, in a layer of sediment deposited during the Middle Stone Age (MSA).

In each case, the shells appear to have been gathered from many kilometres away from the sites from which they have now been excavated by archaeologists, again indicating a distinct preference for this particular type of shell, as well as a concomitant use of red ochre, and a willingness to devote time and energy to obtain them. From these accounts, we get the impression that modern Homo sapiens first began to use shells for a symbolic purpose, rather than utilitarian, around 100,000 bp, roughly half way between the present day, and the earliest known remains of moderns dating to around 195,000 bp.

Thus we gain the impression that the so-called ‘cultural revolution’ of the Eurasian Upper Palaeolithic as no longer being the first abstract expressions of mankind, but rather part of a long-running cultural phenomenon quietly running in the background for tens of thousands of years beforehand, a behaviour set that could only have been adopted by sophisticated moderns with increased cognition, presumably combined with enhanced manual dexterity.

It is typically assumed, or at least proposed, that our archaic others, namely Neanderthals, h. heidelbergensis, h. antecessor, and H.erectus lacked the cognitive capacity for symbolic thought or action, and everything they made had a strictly utilitarian purpose. Although we acknowledge they made sophisticated tools, those very same stone tools are almost all we have left that can offer insights into the intentions and actions of their erstwhile makers and users. For example, it can be stated with certainty that some tools were deployed in the acquisition and processing of meat, other foods, and material resources, such as wood, bone and antler etc., typically required for use in everyday life.

Surprisingly, there is still some doubt as to exactly what use hand-axes were put, and although hand-axes are not the topic of discussion here, they do demonstrate that our views of some aspects of the Palaeolithic are still clouded. Even when discussing something as ubiquitous as something that appears to be a routine tool, care needs to be taken with interpretations and appraisals of artefacts, no matter how archaeologically mundane they may seem.

Which brings us back to the subject of bead-making, an activity which might in fact be able to be traced back hundreds of thousands of years earlier into the Pleistocene, at least according to Robert Bednarik, who authored this linked article, ‘Beads And The Origins Of Symbolism‘, in which he describes possible bead use in the Lower and Middle Palaeolithic…

“Of a substantially greater antiquity are the three similar ostrich eggshell beads from El Greifa site E, in Wadi el Adjal, Libya (Bednarik 1997d). They come from a substantial sequence of Acheulian occupation deposits representing many millennia of continuous occupation of a littoral site, on the shore of the huge Fezzan Lake of the Pleistocene. This site has exceptionally good preservation conditions, with insect remains and seeds found together with bone. The typical Late Acheulian stone tool forms, including ‘handaxes’, confirm the dating of the occupation strata by Th/U analysis to about 200 ka. These are the earliest known secure disc beads in the world, and there can be no reasonable doubt that they are indeed man-made beads, and not some chance product of nature (Figure 3d-f). In addition to the three found initially, several more beads have most recently been recovered from the same site and period (M. Kuckenburg, pers. comm. Jan. 2000).”

This is just one small quote from a substantially larger article, in which Bednarik discusses other possible sites dating back even further, as well as proposing that many perforated objects have been found in association with tools types associated with archaic humans at locations including Austria, and even from the type site of St. Acheul, as related here…

“Dr. Rigollot also mentions the occurrence in the gravel of round pieces of hard chalk, pierced through with a hole, which he considers were used as beads. The author found several, and recognized in them a small fossil sponge, the Coscinopora globularis, D’Orb., from the chalk, but does not feel quite satisfied about their artificial dressing. Some specimens do certainly appear as though the hole had been enlarged and completed. (Prestwich 1859: 52)”

It’s well worthwhile reading the paper in its entirety, as it goes into much greater detail than time or space permit here – I don’t have the necessary archaeological background to be able to assess the plausibility or otherwise of Bednarik’s proposals, compelling though they may be, but for now I think it’s worth bearing in mind that whenever one sees a headline proclaiming something or someone as being the ‘first’ or ‘oldest’ of its type, there is invariably an older example already found or awaiting discovery, and which moreover have the potential to dramatically alter our perceptions of what we take to be accepted and incontrovertible paradigms. (TJ)

Advertisements