World’s Oldest Manufactured Beads Are Older Than Previously Thought
ScienceDaily (May 5, 2009) — A team of archaeologists has uncovered
some of the world’s earliest shell ornaments in a limestone cave in
Eastern Morocco. The researchers have found 47 examples of Nassarius
marine shells, most of them perforated and including examples covered
in red ochre, at the Grotte des Pigeons at Taforalt.
The fingernail-size shells, already known from 82,000-year-old Aterian
deposits in the cave, have now been found in even earlier layers.
While the team is still awaiting exact dates for these layers, they
believe this discovery makes them arguably the earliest shell
ornaments in prehistory.
The shells are currently at the centre of a debate concerning the
origins of modern behaviour in early humans. Many archaeologists
regard the shell bead ornaments as proof that anatomically modern
humans had developed a sophisticated symbolic material culture. Up
until now, Blombos cave in South Africa has been leading the ‘bead
race’ with 41 Nassarius shell beads that can confidently be dated to
72,000 years ago.
Aside from this latest discovery unearthing an even greater number of
beads, the research team says the most striking aspect of the Taforalt
discoveries is that identical shell types should appear in two such
geographically distant regions. As well as Blombos, there are now at
least four other Aterian sites in Morocco with Nassarius shell beads.
The newest evidence, in a paper by the authors to be published in the
next few weeks in the Journal of Quaternary Science Reviews, shows
that the Aterian in Morocco dates back to at least 110,000 years ago.
Research team leader, Professor Nick Barton, from the Institute of
Archaeology at the University of Oxford, said: ‘These new finds are
exciting because they show that bead manufacturing probably arose
independently in different cultures and confirms a long suspected
pattern that humans with modern symbolic behaviour were present from a
very early stage at both ends of the continent, probably as early as
110,000 years ago.’
Also leading the research team Dr Abdeljalil Bouzouggar, from the
Institut National des Sciences de l’Archéologie et du Patrimoine in
Morocco, said: ‘The archaeological and chronological contexts of the
Taforalt discoveries suggest a much longer tradition of bead-making
than previously suspected, making them perhaps the earliest such
ornaments in the world.’
Archaeologists widely believe that humans in Europe first started
fashioning purely symbolic objects about 40,000 years ago, but in
Africa this latest evidence shows that humans were engaged in this
activity at least 40,000 years before this.
Excavations in April 2009 also continued in the upper levels of
Taforalt to investigate a large well-preserved cemetery dating to
around 12,500 years ago. The project, co-ordinated by Dr Louise
Humphrey, from the Natural History Museum in London, has found adult
as well as infant burials at the site. The infant burials throw an
interesting light on early burial traditions as many of the infants
seem to be buried singly beneath distinctive blue stones with the
undersides smeared with red ochre. By contrast, studies by Dr Elaine
Turner of the Römisch Germanisches Zentralmuseum, Mainz, show that the
adults’ grave pits were generally marked by the horn cores of wild
barbary sheep. Taforalt remains the largest necropolis of the Late
Stone Age period in North Africa presently under excavation.
Professor Barton said: ‘Taking our new discovery of the shell beads at
Taforalt, together with the discoveries of the decorated burials
excavated by Dr Louise Humphrey, it shows that the cave must have
retained its special interest for different groups of people over many
thousands of years. One of its unique attractions and a focal point of
interest seems to have been a freshwater spring that rises next to the
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