The human penchant for bling is ancient—and a new study suggests it may go back as far as 142,000 years. That’s when hunter-gatherers in what is now Morocco collected tiny seashells, bored them with holes, and strung them up to adorn their hair, bodies, or clothing. The look must have been bedazzling, because the same type of perforated shells spread quickly throughout northern Africa and into the Middle East. The beads—the world’s oldest if new dates hold up—suggest modern humans were engaged in fully symbolic behavior 10,000 to 20,000 years earlier than previously known.
“Shells are special wherever you find them, because when you wear a shell on a string around some part of your body, you’re using your body to send messages to strangers about your identity,” says paleoanthropologist Alison Brooks of George Washington University, who was not part of the new study. “Everyone’s arguing that when you have symbolic behavior, you have fully capable modern humans.”
Previously, the earliest known shell beads came from the Contrebandiers and El Mnasra caves in Morocco, dating to between 103,000 and 122,000 years ago, and from Israel’s Skhul Cave. But the “iffy” dates at Skhul come from only two shell beads from a layer dated roughly to between 100,000 and 135,000 years ago, Brooks says.
The new beads were found in Bizmoune Cave, a stunning gallery in the flank of an 800-meter limestone mountain in western Morocco, just 12 kilometers east of the Atlantic Ocean. Between 2014 and 2018, researchers excavated 33 oval-shaped, perforated shells of the mollusk Tritia gibbosula. All but one of the thumbnail-size oval shells were found in a single layer of ashy silt as stone blades and scrapers, charcoal from ancient campfires, and fragments of wildebeest, gazelle, and zebra bone.
The researchers next dated carbonate mineral deposits such as stalagmites and flowstones that had formed in the cave, including one near the cave’s mouth that was in the same layer as the beads—and likely formed around the same time. They measured the radioactive decay of uranium into thorium in that flowstone to date it to 142,000 years ago. Given the large margins of error on the date, the researchers say there is a 95% chance the bead-bearing layer is between 120,000 and 171,000 years old—and propose an age of at least 142,000 years for the beads, they report today in Science Advances.
But dating experts expressed concern that the age of the bead-bearing layer relies on just one sample. University of Wollongong, Wollongong, geochronologist Richard “Bert” Roberts, who is not part of the study but has dated other bead sites in North Africa, says he would like to see the date replicated by other methods, “before accepting it at face value.” Based on the data in the new study, he suggests the beads are between 100,000 and 120,000 years, right in the ballpark of beads at other sites in North Africa and Israel.
Regardless of their antiquity, the beads from Bizmoune Cave show humans across North Africa were using the same types of shells to make beads before such ornaments appeared widely elsewhere in Africa or Asia. “North Africa has played a major role in the origins of symbolic behavior,” says archeologist Abdeljalil Bouzouggar of Morocco’s National Institute of Archaeology and Heritage and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, who led the excavations at Bizmoune Cave. And, he adds, the same type of shell beads’ appearance at a half-dozen sites across the region suggests making shell beads was a widespread practice.
The abundance of shell beads first in North Africa suggests modern humans there may have been strengthening ties with other groups. The beads could have been strung in different ways to signal clan identity, or indicate whether an individual had a partner. “Wearing beads has to do with meeting strangers, expanding social networks,” says archaeologist Steven Kuhn of the University of Arizona. “You don’t have to signal your identity to your mother or whether you’re married to your husband or wife.”
But these early beads are quite similar across sites and hard to see at a distance, points out anthropologist Polly Wiessner of Arizona State University, Tempe, and the University of Utah. She doubts they were used to signal to strangers. Instead, she suggests they were used as gifts within established social networks to solidify bonds, or as an offering to boost the odds of food sharing in future times of need. Mainly, she thinks these Stone Age baubles were used primarily for “personal adornment to enhance beauty in the pursuit of mates, or increase social esteem.” Some things never change.