80,000-year- old Beads Shed Light on Early Culture
Even the very first modern humans may have spruced them-
selves up with beaded bling.
Twelve shell beads discovered in a cave in eastern Morocco
have been dated at more than 80,000 years old, making them
one of the earliest examples of human culture. The beads
are colored with red ochre and show signs of being strung
Similar beads have been found in other parts of Africa and
the Middle East, suggesting the first Homo sapiens literally
carried their penchant for baubles with them as they
populated the world.
"If you draw a triangle covering the three furthest known
locations of Homo sapiens between 75,000â€"120,000 years
ago, that triangle stretches from South Africa to Morocco
to Israel," said study co-author Chris Stringer of London's
Natural History Museum.
"Shell beads are now known at all three points of that
triangle," Stringer added. "So such behavior had probably
spread right across the early human range by this time,
and would have been carried by modern humans as they
dispersed from Africa in the last 100,000 years."
The findings are detailed in a recent issue of the
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Oxford
University's Institute of Archaeology and Morocco's
National Institute for Archaeological Sciences led the
The beads found in Morocco aren't the oldest in
existence. That title belongs to two tiny shells
discovered in Israel in the 1930s and dated at 100,000
years old. The shells are pierced with holes and were
probably also hung as pendants or necklaces,
Combined, the finds hint at the extent of the culture and
symbolism being practiced by the earliest modern humans. Art
and decoration like the beads are considered good indicators
of how human behavior evolved from Africa to other parts of
"A major question in evolutionary studies today is 'how early
did humans begin to think and behave in ways we would see
as fundamentally modern?'," said co-author Nick Barton of
Oxford University. "The appearance of ornaments such as
these may be linked to a growing sense of self-awareness
and identity among humans."
Some researchers have suggested that humans didn't become
culturally modern until they reached Europe about 35,000
years ago. But Europe, which doesn't show evidence of
similar jewelry or customs until much later, actually
lagged behind in cultural development, Stringer said.
"This research shows that a long lasting and widespread
bead-working tradition associated with early modern humans
extended through Africa to the Middle East well before
comparable evidence appears in Europe," Stringer said in
a 2006 prepared statement, commenting on the just-
released, very ancient dates for the Israeli beads.
"Modern human anatomy and behavior have deep roots in
Africa and were widespread by 75,000 years ago, even
though they may not have appeared in Europe for another
35,000 years," he said.