/ 16 April 2004

SA cave yields oldest known jewellery

About 75 000 years ago someone living in a cave overlooking the Indian Ocean bored holes in a set of shells and strung them as beads — the earliest known human jewellery.

The newly found beads are more than 30 000 years older than any other known human jewellery.

The discovery of the Stone Age beads in South Africa supports the theory that traits associated with modern people, such as using symbolic items, developed early, rather than thousands of years later after humans migrated to the Middle East and Europe.

The previously oldest known human ornaments are perforated teeth and eggshell beads from Bulgaria and Turkey, 41 000 to 43 000 years old, and 40 000-year-old ostrich-shell beads from Kenya.

Uncovered in Blombos cave on the Indian Ocean shoreline in South Africa, the newly discovered beads were made from the shells of a type of mollusc. The material was dated to the Middle Stone Age.

The 41 beads were made by boring holes in the shells, each about a centimetre across. The beads show wear marks indicating rubbing against thread, string or fabric, the researchers report in Friday’s issue of the journal Science. They contain traces of red, either from decoration or from rubbing against coloured materials, and were found in groups of up to 17 beads.

Last year, the same cave yielded two pieces of 77 000-year-old ochre cut with abstract patterns.

Beads are a serious matter in traditional societies, providing identification by gender, age, social class and ethnic group, said Christopher Henshilwood of the Centre for Development Studies at the University of Bergen, Norway.

Beads are symbolic, said Henshilwood, who led the research. The ability to use language ”must have been essential for sharing and transmitting the symbolic meaning of beads, and possibly other artefacts, within and beyond the group”, he said.

The find ”provides material evidence that by 75 000 years ago, human communication was mediated by symbolism, an unambiguous marker of modern human behaviour”, he said.

Henshilwood said the molluscs used to make the beads live in estuaries and the nearest source for them was about 19km away from the cave, indicating some time and effort was needed to obtain them. He added that the wear marks on the beads indicate they were in use for a long time.

Alison Brooks, who teaches anthropology at George Washington University, said, ”I think that beads are an unequivocal argument that people are employing symbols to signify who they are.”

”Body ornamentation in general seems to be a way humans symbolise status, group affiliation … beads, feathers, tattoos, clothes are ways to communicate their identity,” she added.

There is a great argument over the degree to which humans engaged in symbolic activity before they left Africa, and this find indicates they had that ability early, said Brooks, who was not part of the research team.

Anthropology Professor Sally McBrearty of the University of Connecticut agreed that the find pushes back the earliest date of human symbolic activity, adding: ”I think this date will be pushed back further, ultimately.”

The beads are especially important, having been found in the same cave as the carved ochre, she said. ”Whatever is happening there, something symbolic is being communicated.”

One omission, she said, was that the researchers did not suggest how the shells had been perforated to form the beads.

In addition to Henshilwood, who is also affiliated with the State University of New York at Stony Brook, the research involved scientists from France, South Africa and Wales. The study was funded by the United States National Science Foundation, South African National Research Foundation, French National Centre for Scientific Research, European Science Foundation, University of Bergen, Anglo American Chairman’s Fund and the British Council. — Sapa-AP

On the net:

Science: www.sciencemag.org