Archaeologists working in the Bizmoune Cave in southwest Morocco published a surprising finding in Science Advances last week: they had discovered what is believed to be the oldest jewelry in the world. The team found 33 shell beads that they dated to between 142,000 and 150,000 years old.
The beads were found between 2014 and 2018 and in the time since the team has been working to confirm a date for the artifacts through scientific analysis. The study, led by El Mehdi Sehasseh, a graduate student at the National Institute of Archaeological Sciences and Heritage in Rabat, involved doing uranium dating and looking at where the beads were deposited in sediment layers, which gave researchers the clues to figure out at what point in the time the jewelry had been made.
At first glance, it was unclear if the beads found were in fact jewelry, as they were made from shells. But researchers were able to conclude that they indeed were jewelry based on close study to the holes in the shells, which had been created by human intervention. Many beads of a similar kind have previously been found in the region, but none were dated to being more than 130,000 years old. Repetitive, nearly microscopic “striations,” or drill marks, are found surrounding the holes, suggesting that were made by a human using a tool and through wear and tear from being hung on a string. Some of the beads also had traces of ochre on them, a pigment commonly used by ancient humans in self decoration.
This style of bead is associated with the Aterian culture of the Middle Stone Age in North Africa. The Aterians crafted stone points, possibly connected to spears, for hunting, and have long been credited with creating the first examples of symbolic material culture, or in other words, jewelry.
The researchers involved in the dig feel fairly certain that the beads were used as a form of communication, not just self adornment. “They were probably part of the way people expressed their identity with their clothing,” Steven L. Kuhn said in an interview with Eureka Alert! “They’re the tip of the iceberg for that kind of human trait. They show that it was present even hundreds of thousands of years ago, and that humans were interested in communicating to bigger groups of people than their immediate friends and family.”