Event 53

80,000 years ago

Shell beads
These images are of 75,000 year old punctured shell beads from Blombos Cave, South Africa. The shell beads show evidence of a) a puncture, b) flattened facets produced by wear, c) ochre traces inside the shell. The d) image is of the external view of the shells.
Credit: Photo by Chenshilwood, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Humans love to decorate themselves. We may put on make-up or wear rings, bracelets (sometimes in the form of watches), necklaces, and earrings, as well as even more extreme forms of decorations such as body piercings and tattoos. The earliest known personal ornamentation comes in the form of shell beads (made both from marine shells and ostrich eggshells) from Southern and East Africa between 80,000 and 70,000 years ago. From what we know of hunter-gatherers, such ornamentation is not just decorative but may symbolize many things: marital status, age group, bravery, or status.

We take such personal ornamentation for granted today, as modern human populations adorn themselves with ornaments, jewelry, tattoos and other body decoration, sometimes on an everyday basis and other times for ceremonial occasions. But this is not done by other primates, and we do not have very ancient evidence of such ornamentation. Such self-decoration is done today by people not to feed themselves or, for the most part, to protect themselves, or for other obviously ‘useful’ purposes. But humans ornament themselves today so consistently and pervasively that we must recognize this as a very human trait, and a fairly modern one that shows up fairly recently in the prehistoric record, by sometime around 100,000 years ago.

The evidence show that this tendency, or perhaps even drive, to adorn ourselves, to decorate our bodies with things that are ‘pretty,’ ‘different,’ ‘interesting,’ or even rare, had attained symbolic importance for our ancestors by this time. Such ‘communication by decoration’ would seem to indicate communication within the human group, signifying to others in the groups aspects of identity, status, or other special ideas. By later in the Palaeolithic, burials sometimes include hundreds or thousands of beads, probably indicating and signifying the status and relative wealth of the individual so endowed.


100,000 year old shell beads
Shells of the Nassarius gibbosulus gastropod, excavated from the site of Skuhl in Israel, dating to at leat 100,000 years ago, and the site of Oued Djebbana in Algeria, dating to 82,000 years ago, were found to each have a puncture hole and wear as if they had been strung together. It must be noted, however, that holes of this sort do also occur naturally.
Credit: Photo by Marian Vanhaeren and Francesco d’Errico. This photo is used with permission. All rights reserved.



The first good evidence of humans modifying shells to make them into ‘beads’ to string into strands or even possible attach to clothing, is from Blombos in South Africa dating to about 80,000 years ago. Other early sites with possible beads made from perforated shells and around this same time period include Skhul in Israel (dating to at least 100,000 years ago), the site of Oued Djebbana in Algeria in North Africa (dating to about 82,000 years ago).

These beads show signs of being intentionally drilled with fine stone tools to produce their holes, presumably to be strung on a cord of vegetable material, sinew, or hide. By the time of the Upper Palaeolithic starting about 40,000 years ago, some burials are so rich that it appears that beads were also sewn onto hats and clothing.


The emergence of personal ornamentation suggests a new level of self-awareness and communication to other members of your social group, perhaps symbolically. Such a desire to wear personal ornamentation is yet another hallmark of the modern human condition and one that links us to ancient ancestors going back to nearly 100,000 years ago.



Ancient beads imply culture older than we thought

This is the Blombos Cave Project website which features the shell beads found at the site. 

This is a BBC article about the first shoe-wearers.

This is an article about some of the earliest flax clothing fibers found.

This is an About.com article about “The History of Clothing.”

This is a Wikipedia article about the history of tattoos.



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