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10 May 2009
World's oldest beads older than previously thought

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. 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. The newest evidence 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."
     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.

Source: ScienceDaily (7 May 2009)

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