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Oldest Jewelry discovered in South Africa

Pierced shells found in clusters in the Blombos Cave of South Africa. Photo:Christopher S. Henshilwood April 2004

75,000 years old pierced shells jewellery found in the Blombos Cave of South Africa


 Tiny Shells May Be Oldest Known Beads jewelry

It was a long time ago and far away from Tiffany. But even then, 75,000 years ago in a cave in southern Africa, people apparently had a mind to make a statement about themselves with jewelry, some 30,000 years earlier than any previously identified personal ornaments used by human ancestors.


April 20, 2004 By JOHN NOBLE WILFORD from the New-York Times

At least that is what archaeologists have concluded after finding an array of tiny shells pierced with holes, as if prepared for stringing as primeval beads. The 41 pea-size shell beads were uncovered in clusters arranged by similar sizes and shades, each cluster probably representing a single piece of jewelry.

If these are indeed remains of strings of beads, the discoverers reported last week in the journal Science, they represent the oldest well-dated examples of people making and wearing jewelry. This is further evidence, they said, that these people had a language capable of sharing the symbolic meanings of these objects.

In short, people may have been thinking and acting long before it has been generally supposed.

The shell beads were described in the report by a team of scientists led by Dr. Christopher S. Henshilwood, a South African archaeologist affiliated with the University of Bergen in Norway and the State University of New York at Stony Brook. The discovery was made at Blombos Cave, on the shore of the Indian Ocean 200 miles east of Cape Town.

Two years ago, Dr. Henshilwood reported finding other evidence of possibly complex symbolic thinking by the inhabitants of Blombos Cave, including abstract engravings and finely worked bone tools and weapon points.

Not all scholars agreed with the interpretation that these first artifacts were expressions of a modern type of creativity. The recent discovery also has cautious skeptics. Several archaeologists said they were not convinced that the shells were actually beads.

Until now, the earliest undisputed African personal ornaments were 13 ostrich eggshell beads from Kenya, dated at 40,000 to 45,000 years ago. Other evidence includes 43,000-year-old perforated teeth from Bulgaria and 41,000-year-old marine beads from Turkey.

Last month, scientists reported finding more ostrich eggshell beads in the Serengeti National Park of Tanzania. Their beadlike nature is widely accepted, but their age is undetermined. One tentative estimate of 70,000 years for the eggshell beads appears to strengthen the case for emergent modern behavior among Africans well before the burst of artistic creativity that swept Europe, beginning about 40,000 years ago.

From the cave art evidence, scholars have usually inferred that the transition to modern human behavior occurred late and rather abruptly. Dr. Richard G. Klein, a Stanford paleoanthropologist, has proposed that this "creative explosion" probably stemmed from a genetic change that also enhanced human speech.

The shell beads of Blombos Cave were from a small snail-like mollusk, Nassarius kraussianus. The people must have brought them from rivers more than 10 miles away. They were too tiny to be dinner leftovers, Dr. Henshilwood's team said, and could not have been brought there by animals. Their only known predators could not leave water.

In their report, the archaeologists said a microscopic analysis showed the use-wear pattern of the shells to be "consistent with friction from rubbing against thread, clothes or other beads."

So the Blombos people, it seems, invested in the shell of a common snail something of their mind and spirit, perhaps to project relationships, status and self-image. It was their pearl and their gold.

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World's oldest jewellery found in cave 

Tim Radford, science editor Friday April 16, 2004 found at The Guardian

Around 75,000 years ago, in a cave near the southern Cape shoreline in South Africa, a human drilled tiny holes into the shells of snails and strung them as beads to make the oldest known jewellery - by at least 30,000 years. 

Forty-one shells of the mollusc scavenger Nassarius kraussianus, with holes and marks in similar positions, have been found in a cave overlooking the Indian Ocean in South Africa, archaeologists from France, Britain and Norway report in today's issue of the journal Science. 

The shells appear to have been selected according to size, and they must have been brought to the Blombos cave from rivers a dozen miles away. The shells are marked with traces of red ochre, so they were either decorated with iron oxide pigment or they were worn by someone wearing such primitive makeup. 

The beads are dramatic evidence of modern human behaviour 75,000 years ago. They are at least 35,000 years older than the earliest undisputed African ornaments - some ostrich eggshell beads found in Kenya - and around 30,000 years older than some perforated teeth ornaments from Bulgaria and a string of sea shell beads from Turkey. They are the first evidence of artistic creativity and symbolism in a creature otherwise known only for stone tools and weapons. 

"The Blombos beads present absolute evidence for perhaps the earliest storage of information outside the human brain," said Christopher Henshilwood of the University of Bergen in Norway, the director of the cave project. 

oldest jewellery found in South Afrian caveIf shells (top) from a tiny mollusk found in Blombos Cave (bottom) in South Africa prove to have been used as beads, humans may have been capable of symbolic thinking earlier than thought, according to researchers.

Top photograph courtesy Christopher Henshilwood/Science, bottom photograph courtesy Christopher Henshilwood and F. d'Errico/NSF

"Agreement is widespread that personal ornaments such as beads incontrovertibly represent symbolically mediated modern behaviour. Until now, the oldest beads in Africa date to about 45,000 years. The discovery of 41 shell beads in sand layers at Blombos cave, accurately dated as 75,000 years old, provides important new evidence for early symbolically organised behaviour in Africa."

The first hominids in Africa date back millions of years. Homo erectus, a human ancestor, emerged at least 2 million years ago and began to spread into Europe and Asia. Some 500,000 years ago, Europe and Britain were colonised by a species known as Homo heidelbergensis. The first anatomically modern humans, more slender and graceful than the Neanderthals, emerged less than 200,000 years ago. These people cooperated, hunted and made stone tools and weapons. 

But around 40,000 years ago, something dramatic happened. Humans became interested in art, ornament and beauty, and the things they left behind in caves in Europe and Africa marked them out as not just anatomically modern, but modern in behaviour too. 

The Blombos cave discovery however, means that the theorists will have to think again. The Breakfast at Tiffany's urge for jewellery has turned out to be far older. 

Two years ago, Prof Henshilwood found ochre, marked with abstract geometric representations, in the Blombos cave, along with bone tools and fishing equipment. But the beads provide far stronger evidence of abstract thought. 

"Beads are an unequivocal argument that people are employing symbols to signify who they are," said Alison Brooks of George Washington University. "Body ornamentation seems to be a way humans symbolise status." 

Read also : Diamonds News, diamond planet

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