From ancient beads to modern bling, jewelry has allowed humans to make statements for millennia. Now, reports Ann Gibbons for Science magazine, a new analysis of beads found in Morocco offers a clearer picture of how long people have been making these fashion pronouncements: at least 142,000 to 150,000 years.
Writing in the journal Science Advances, the researchers date 33 small seashells bored with holes to that timeframe—around 10,000 to 20,000 years earlier than previously recorded. Discovered in Bizmoune Cave, the prehistoric jewelry shows how early humans communicated information about themselves to others.
“They were probably part of the way people expressed their identity with their clothing,” says study co-author Steven L. Kuhn, an archaeologist at the University of Arizona, in a statement.
“Wearing beads has to do with meeting strangers, expanding social networks,” Kuhn tells Science. “You don’t have to signal your identity to your mother or whether you’re married to your husband or wife.”
Per the study, the seashells were found in a deposit layer dated to at least 142,000 years ago, extending the earliest records of this type of human activity from the Middle Stone Age into the late Middle Pleistocene period.
“[O]rnaments such as beads are among the earliest signs of symbolic behavior among human ancestors,” the paper states. “Their appearance signals important developments in both cognition and social relations.”
The discovery suggests that humans in North Africa were making ornaments long before their peers in other parts of Africa and Asia.
“While similar specimens have been found elsewhere in northwestern Africa, these examples extend their range to the far western edge of present-day Morocco, providing evidence for when and where ancient populations may have been connected over large geographic regions and allowing us to refine the mode and tempo of modern human origins,” Teresa Steele, an anthropologist at the University of California, Davis, who was not involved in the study, tells Nature Middle East’s Rieko Kawabata.
Unearthed between 2014 and 2018, the ancient jewelry was made from perforated shells of the mollusk Tritia gibbosula. All but one of the snail shells was found in the same layer of ash, which also included stone tools and animal bones.
The researchers dated the beads by measuring uranium decay in mineral deposits found in that same layer. Their analysis pinpointed the shells’ modification to between 120,000 and 171,000 years ago, with 142,000 years old as the jewelry’s likely minimum age.
According to the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), the earliest forms of jewelry were made from shells, stone and bone. Prehistoric people likely wore such adornments “as a protection from the dangers of life or as a mark of status or rank.”
The Moroccan beads join a growing body of millennia-old jewelry analyzed by archaeologists. In 2017, for instance, researchers on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi found a polished pendant crafted from the finger bone of a bear cuscus. More recently, a team investigating the Qafzeh Cave in Israel discovered 120,000-year-old shells strung on a necklace as beads.
“It’s one thing to know that people were capable of making [jewelry],” says Kuhn in the statement, “but then the question becomes, ‘OK, what stimulated them to do it?’”