The worlds oldest beads from Skhul, Israel.

Middle Paleolithic Shell Beads in Israel and Algeria

Marian Vanhaeren,1* Francesco d’Errico,2* Chris Stringer,3 Sarah L. James,4 Jonathan A. Todd,3 Henk K. Mienis5

Perforated marine gastropod shells at the western Asian site of Skhul and the North African site of Oued Djebbana indicate the early use of beads by modern humans in these regions. The remoteness of these sites from the seashore and a comparison of the shells to natural shell assemblages indicate deliberate selection and transport by humans for symbolic use. Elemental and chemical analyses of sediment matrix adhered to one Nassarius gibbosulus from Skhul indicate that the shell bead comes from a layer containing 10 human fossils and dating to 100,000 to 135,000 years ago, about 25,000 years earlier than previous evidence for personal decoration by modern humans in South Africa.

As I read last year the oldest beads are supposed to some from Taforalt in Morocco, at 82,000 years old. This would seem to beat that age by at least 18,000 years, and more like 35,000 years.

 I tracked down an article on the Skhul beads here in New Scientist.

Ancient beads imply culture older than we thought
19:00 22 June 2006 news service
Anna Gosline

Each shell found at Skhul had a hole on the back, most likely made by humans, though such holes do occur naturally. Both shells are pictured in four views. Scale bar is 1 centimetre

The shells of Nassarius gibbosulus are still common today (Image: Marian Vanhaeren/Francesco d’Errico)Archaeologists have discovered that 100,000-year-old shells found in Israel and Algeria were decorative beads. This suggests that modern human forms of behaviour, such as language, developed earlier than previously thought.

“Personal ornaments are a powerful tool of communication,” says Francesco D’Errico at the Institute of the Prehistory and Geology of the Quaternary in Talence, France, one of the team that studied the beads. “They can indicate social or marital status, for example. But you need to have a complex system of language behind that. To me [these beads] are very powerful archaeological evidence that these people were able to speak like us.”

In 2004 archaeologists unearthed 41 pea-sized shell beads in Blombos Caves, South Africa, dated at 75,000 years old. The shells were all punctured in the same place and showed signs of wear, as if they had been strung together. They were the oldest record of personal ornamentation ever found, suggesting that African humans from this time could think symbolically and were more culturally advanced than previously believed.

That find prompted Marian Vanhaeren at University College London and her colleagues to take a further look at shells mentioned in site excavation logs from Skhul in Israel and Oued Djebbana in Algeria. The team found three shells of the ocean gastropod Nassarius gibbosulus in museums in London and Paris. Two were from Skhul, dating from at least 100,000 years ago, and one was from Oued Djebbana and between 35,000 and 90,000 years old. The snail is of the same genus as those found in the Blombos Caves, and all the finds were too tiny to be collected as food. Each shell had a hole on the back, most likely punctured by humans, though such holes do occur naturally.

Shell traders
For the past 100,000 years Skhul and Oued Djebbana have been 20 and 190 kilometres respectively from the sea, where the snails live. “These beads needed to have been collected or traded, which implies that they had cultural value,” says Bernard Wood at George Washington University in Washington DC, US. “You wouldn’t trudge 200 kilometres if you could find something a lot more local.”

The finding is more evidence that modern human behaviour developed gradually in Africa following the appearance of anatomically modern humans around 200,000 years ago. The conventional archaeological wisdom, however, states that culturally modern humans appeared suddenly in Africa or Eurasia just 40,000 years ago, in what is known as the “human revolution”. This conclusion was based on the rich archaeological sites in Europe dated from that time, filled with a plethora of engravings, sculpture, beads and artworks.

“That sort of prejudice is being continually eroded with these kinds of discoveries,” says Wood. “But it still raises the question, in order to make holes in beads and to have the need for beads, does that mean you have language? Bead-making is being used as a proxy for modern human behaviour. It would be nice if there were more proxies and it would be nice to find them at these sites.”

But Sally McBrearty at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, US, says that one artefact is enough. “In European sites all of these symbolic artefacts appear together in a package. But even one of these things shows the capacity for symbolic communication. You find them all together in Europe because it was many tens of thousands of years after they were invented in Africa.”

Journal reference: Science (vol 312 p 1785


2 responses to “The worlds oldest beads from Skhul, Israel.

  1. whistling in the dark is what nearly everyone is doing! Hoping that the slight genetic evidence for the “out of africa” theory is true, and it certainly could be – if it were not for the discovery of a clearly anatomically modern human in Europe who is, beyond dispute, at least 800,000 years old. Homo Antecessor is clearly a modern human, and like all modern humans, he has a flat face – the kind of face that archaic humans never have been found to have – not even one. Of course Homo Antecessor had beads! And when you find them do doubt you will say they are Neanderthal – but you will be wrong because you are projecting your desires on the very false premise that suddenly, 200.000 years ago, evolution suddenly popped ahead by millions of years and produced a man from a beast – how likely is that!?

  2. Hal: H. antecessor is a proto-Neanderthal and would not be considered any AMH normally, as this term is synonimous with Homo sapiens.

    Mathilda: I don’t see anywhere in the abstract that there’s been any new datation for the Skuhl layers. The 100-130,000 BP date is a classical but is, for that same reason, a rather dubious datation. It is very possible that they are actually from a slightly more recent moment, probably coincident with the earliest Aterian of North Africa 100-90,000 BP. They “compete” with Taforalt for the oldest date for this kind of ornamental behaviour… but they are not yet confirmed to be older (not sure if that would be possible).

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