Bead discovery shows human culture older than thought

In Brief

Archaeology

June 23, 2006|By DENNIS O'BRIEN

Researchers say they have discovered the oldest beads ever used for decorative purposes - a finding that pushes back the date for the dawn of modern human culture by 25,000 years.

Detailed analysis of beads made from mollusk shells that were dug up years ago in Israel and Algeria show that they were probably hand carved about 100,000 years ago, researchers say. They also are similar to beads believed to be about 75,000 years old that were discovered several years ago. They were at an archaeological site known as the Blombos Cave on the coast of the Indian Ocean in South Africa.

Until recently, researchers thought that culture emerged 40,000 years ago when modern humans migrated from Africa and began creating the cave paintings, musical instruments and jewelry discovered at European archaeological sites.

But several years ago, scientists from France and England discovered 41 beads made from mollusk shells, with holes and wear marks, in Blombos Cave sediments that were 75,000 years old. Experts generally agree that decorative beads are an important sign of an emerging culture.

Anxious to find similar beads elsewhere, the scientists began scouring museum collections. They found that the same type of perforated shells had turned up in the 1930s and 1940s at archaeological sites in Skuhl, Israel, and in Oued Djebbana, Algeria. They had never been compared with those found in South Africa, the researchers say.

The beads, with perforated holes, turned out to be nearly identical. They were made from Nassarius gibbosulus, a scavenging marine snail that lives in shallow waters.

Additional study showed the Israeli beads are encrusted with sediments that are at least 100,000 years old, while the Algerian beads were found with stone tools that could be 90,000 years old, researchers said.

The findings were detailed today in the journal Science by researchers from University College London and the National Center for Scientific Research in Talence, France.

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