By Deirdre Tynan • 23 September 2021 • 15:49
Shell beads, the world’s oldest pieces of jewellery, have been found in Morocco.
Shell beads found in a cave in Morocco are at least 142,000 years old. The archaeologists who found them say they’re the earliest known evidence of a widespread form of human communication.
Anthropologists say humans have been doing this – finding ways to communicate about themselves without the fuss of conversation – for millennia.
But shell beads recovered from a cave in western Morocco, determined to be between 142,000 and 150,000 years old, suggest that this behaviour may go back much farther than previously thought. The finding was made by a team of archaeologists that includes Steven L. Kuhn, a professor of anthropology in the University of Arizona College of Social and Behavioural Sciences.
The beads, Kuhn and his colleagues say, are the earliest known evidence of a widespread form of nonverbal human communication, and they shed new light on how humans’ cognitive abilities and social interactions evolved.
“They were probably part of the way people expressed their identity with their clothing,” Kuhn said. “They’re the tip of the iceberg for that kind of human trait. They show that it was present even hundreds of thousands of years ago, and that humans were interested in communicating to bigger groups of people than their immediate friends and family.”
Kuhn and an international team of archaeologists recovered the 33 beads between 2014 and 2018 near the mouth of Bizmoune Cave, about 10 miles inland from Essaouira, a city on Morocco’s Atlantic coast.
Kuhn co-directs archaeological research at Bizmoune Cave with Abdeljalil Bouzouggar, a professor at the National Institute of Archaeological Sciences and Heritage in Rabat, Morocco, and Phillipe Fernandez, from the University Aix-Marseille in France, who are also authors on the study. El Mehdi Sehasseh, a graduate student at the National Institute of Archaeological Sciences and Heritage, who did the detailed study of the beads, is the study’s lead author.
The beads uncovered by Kuhn and his collaborators were made from sea snail shells, and each measures roughly half an inch long. Holes in the centre of the beads, as well as other markings from wear and tear, indicate that they were hung on strings or from clothing, Kuhn said.
The beads are like many others found at sites throughout northern and southern Africa, but previous examples date back to no older than 130,000 years. Ancient beads from North Africa are associated with the Aterian, a Middle Stone Age culture known for its distinctive stemmed spear points, whose people hunted gazelles, wildebeest, warthogs and rhinoceros, among other animals.
The beads serve as potential clues for anthropologists studying the evolution of human cognition and communication. Researchers have long been interested in when language appeared. But there was no material record of language until just a few thousand years ago, when humans began writing things down.
The beads, Kuhn said, are essentially a fossilized form of basic communication.
“We don’t know what they meant, but they’re clearly symbolic objects that were deployed in a way that other people could see them,” he said.
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Deirdre Tynan is an award-winning journalist who enjoys bringing the best in news reporting to Spain’s largest English-language newspaper, Euro Weekly News. She has previously worked at The Mirror, Ireland on Sunday and for news agencies, media outlets and international organisations in America, Europe and Asia. A huge fan of British politics and newspapers, Deirdre is equally fascinated by the political scene in Madrid and Sevilla. She moved to Spain in 2018 and is based in Jaen.
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