Shell ornaments provide group identity in the Palaeolithic

Nick Barton

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? One index of ‘behavioural modernity’ is in the appearance of objects used purely as decoration or ornaments. Such items are widely regarded as having symbolic rather than practical value. By displaying them on the body as necklaces, pendants or bracelets or attached to clothing this also greatly increased their visual impact. The appearance of ornaments may be linked to a growing sense of self-awareness and identity amongst humans and any symbolic meanings would have been shared by members of the same group.

In Europe, amongst the oldest known symbolic ornaments are perforated animal teeth and shell beads, found in Upper Palaeolithic contexts that date to no more than 40,000 years ago. Such finds are apparently associated with both modern human and late Neanderthal sites. Together with cave paintings and engravings they offer the strongest indications that European societies of those times were capable of thinking in an abstract manner, and symbolising their ideas without relying on obvious links between a meaning and a sign. But, now, a growing body of evidence indicates symbolic material culture consisting of engravings, personal ornaments and systematic use of beads had emerged much earlier in Africa.

In a recently published paper in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of America) archaeologists from Morocco, UK, France and Germany have been able to show that some of the earliest examples of bead making may date back as far as 82,000 years ago in North Africa. The evidence is in the form of deliberately perforated Nassarius marine shells, some still smeared with red ochre, that were found deeply stratified in archaeological levels in Grotte des Pigeons at Taforalt in northeastern Morocco. Led by Abdeljalil Bouzouggar of Rabat University and Nick Barton of Oxford University, a multidisciplinary team has been working in this massive limestone cave for the past five years. The finds come from a sequence of ashy deposits that have been independently dated by scientists at Oxford and in Australia using four different techniques which allow accurate age estimates for the layers with shells to be made. According to Nick Barton, the singular importance of these discoveries “is that they come from securely dated archaeological contexts and show unequivocally that beadmaking traditions existed in Africa that are twice as old as those in Europe”.

The interpretation of the findings are still regarded as controversial by some who would question any appearance of modern symbolic activity before about 40-50,000 years ago. The archaeological dating evidence from the Moroccan site is however indisputable. At Taforalt, 13 Nassarius gibbosulus shell beads have been recovered in a deeply stratified occupation horizon towards the back of the cave. The finds were all made close together and sealed in lightly cemented ashy lenses (the remains of hearths) combined with abundant evidence of human activity in the form of lithic artefacts and animal bones. Amongst the stone tools associated with the shells are thin, bifacially worked foliate points typical of the Middle Palaeolithic Aterian technology, and probably used as spear heads. The bones of wild horse and African hare, found with them, represent human food residues.

Preservation of environmental evidence at Taforalt is also exceptionally good and reveals that at the time of the ‘bead occupation’ the landscape was dry, open and sparsely vegetated with some locally wooded habitat. This information is based on the charcoal identified in the hearth deposits of wood species including cedar that only grows in drier, upland environments in Morocco today. Small mammals, including desert-edge species such as jirds (brought into the cave by natural predators like owls) help prove that the climate was much drier at this point in the past.

The shell beads have been closely studied by Francesco d’Errico and Marian Vanhaeren of the French CNRS who have confirmed that they are a shallow marine species gathered from the beach, which even in the past lay more than 40 km from the cave. Once collected, the dead shells were then probably perforated, ochred and used as personal ornaments. Some of the beads show microscopic wear patterns that would suggest they were suspended from a necklace or bracelet. The application of red pigment may have been intended to give them added visual symbolic value. There can be no doubt at all that this was part of a very deliberate cultural practice.

The beads are all the more extraordinary because the same types of marine tick shell (Nassarius) were used for making beads at a number of other Middle Palaeolithic sites in Africa and the Near East. D’Errico points out that “beads in the same shell species as at Taforalt, have also been found at Djebbana (in Algeria) and Skhul (in the Near East), and Nassarius shells of the same genus were employed at Blombos Cave, a site located at the other end of the continent in South Africa”. The new dating for Taforalt is older than at any of the other African sites and demonstrates that some time after 100,000 years ago personal ornamentation came into widespread use in Africa and the Near East. Preliminary work by the team has also shown that Nassarius shells are not isolated occurrences but are present at various other sites in Morocco. Dating evidence is still awaited for these and they may turn out to be as old or even older than Taforalt.

There is yet another twist: unlike in the Upper Palaeolithic of Europe, in which more than 150 bead types have been recorded in association with a single cultural grouping, only one or two different shell types are found at the much earlier sites stretching the length of Africa. It suggests that the role beads played in African and Near Eastern Homo sapiens societies may have been different from the one personal ornaments had in the Upper Palaeolithic of Europe. According to Vanhaeren the pattern seen in Africa “seems to match more closely the functions of beads among recent African hunter-gatherers where they were used as exchange media to reinforce reciprocity networks, thereby ensuring the survival of human groups in times of stress.” These emblems of cultural identity may have been vital for guaranteeing group survival during periods of rapidly fluctuating climate and especially under intensely arid conditions of the kind recorded at Taforalt.

1 Beads.

2 Outside cave.

3 Cave at Taforalt.

Photos © Nick Barton


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