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Oldest-Known Shell Beads Found In South Africa Show Modern Human Behaviour


Researchers have found perforated shells that appear to be beads dating back 76,000 years ago, causing the development of language and symbolic communication to be older than previously thought by 30,000 years.

The 41 tick shells, punctured with holes of roughly one centimetre across in the same place, were found at Blombos Cave site, 300 km east of Cape Town, South Africa, by Christopher Henshilwood, a professor at the Centre for Development Studies of the University of Bergen in Norway, and his team. Their results are published in this Friday’s edition of the journal Science.

Until now, the oldest beads found in Africa were about 45,000-years-old. It was at this time modern human behaviour—a key aspect being symbolic communication—was believed to have arisen, according to the then-dominant theory. However, the new shell find supports modern human behaviour developing earlier, more gradually throughout the Middle Stone Age.

Found in clusters of 2 to 17, the shells are of a tiny mollusc (Nassarius kraussianus) that lived in estuaries. The team ruled out the possibility that they were deposited there naturally. Shells in the same group display a similar size, shade, and perforation size. They also have a similar use-wear pattern, consistent with friction from rubbing against thread, clothes or other beads. Microscopic residues of ochre detected inside the shells suggest the beads were in contact with something coloured red.

It is believed that full syntactical language is a requisite to share and transmit the symbolic meaning of beadworks and abstract engravings such as those at Blombos Cave. Last year, the same cave also yielded two pieces of 77,000-year-old ochre cut with abstract patterns.

The team’s work is part of a European Science Foundation EUROCORES programme, Origin of Man, Language and Languages, the largest interdisciplinary effort in Europe to study language and its development. The work was also funded by the National Science Foundation (US), the South African National Research Foundation, the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (France), the University of Bergen (Norway), the Anglo-Americans Chairman’s Fund and the British Council.

Jens Degett | ESF
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