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19 August 2007
The oldest beads in the world

The discovery of small perforated sea shells in the Cave of Pigeons in Taforalt, eastern Morocco, shows that the use of bead adornments in North Africa is older than previously thought. Dating from 82,000 years ago, the beads are thought to be the oldest in the world. As adornments, together with art, burial and the use of pigments, are considered to be among the most conclusive signs of the acquisition of symbolic thought and of modern cognitive abilities.
     It was long thought that the oldest adornments, which were then dated as being 40,000 years old, came from Europe and the Middle East. However, since the discovery of 75,000 year-old carved beads and ochres in South Africa, this idea has been challenged, and all the more so with the recent discovery in Morocco of beads that are over 80,000 years old. The discoveries all indicate the presence of a much older symbolic material culture in Africa than in Europe or the Middle East.
     The Moroccan beads, which were unearthed by archaeologists in the Cave of Pigeons in Taforalt, consist of 13 shells belonging to the species Nassarius gibbosulus. The shells have been deliberately perforated, and some of them are still covered with red ochre. They were discovered in the remains of hearths, associated with abundant traces of human activity such as stone tools and animal remains. The molluscs were found in a stratigraphic sequence formed of ashy sediments. They were dated independently by two laboratories using four different techniques, which confirmed an age of 82 000 years.
They were also able to reveal that the shells had been gathered when dead, on the beaches of Morocco, which at that time were located over 40 km from the Cave of Pigeons.
     By taking into account the distance of the coast at that time and the comparison with natural alteration of shells of the same species on today's beaches, the scientists inferred that prehistoric humans had selected, transported and very probably perforated the shells and colored them red for a symbolic use. Moreover, some shells showed traces of wear, which suggests that they were used as adornments for a long time: they were very likely worn as necklaces or bracelets, or sewn onto clothes.
     The beads also belong to the same species of shell, and bear the same type of perforation as those uncovered in previous excavations at the Palaeolithic sites at Skhul in Israel and at Oued Djebbana in Algeria. Everything therefore seems to indicate that 80 000 years ago the populations of the eastern and southern Mediterranean shared the same symbolic traditions. To back up this hypothesis they point to other sites in Morocco where Nassarius gibbosulus beads from the same period are also found.

Source: 50connect.co.uk (August 2007)

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