Ancient beads found in northern Africa

Excavations in eastern Morocco have yielded 13 perforated, pigment-stained shells that were probably strung together as some type of body ornament about 82,000 years ago, according to a new report.

HOLE IN ONE. An 82,000-year-old shell, one of 13 found in a Moroccan cave, contains an opening that allowed it to be suspended, perhaps as part of a necklace. N. Barton

The ancient finds, referred to as shell beads by Abdeljalil Bouzouggar of the National Institute of Archaeological and Historical Sciences in Rabat, Morocco, and his coworkers, come from snails of the same genus as do 75,000-year-old perforated shells previously discovered in South Africa. Similar shell ornaments, not yet firmly dated, also come from sites in Algeria and Israel.

Bouzouggar’s team found the Moroccan shell beads in 2002 in a cave called Grotte des Pigeons. Measurements of radiation in sediment and burned stone artifacts at the site produced the age estimate.

People either deliberately created holes in the shells or combed beaches for shells that already had large, circular gaps, the researchers say. Such shell openings rarely occur naturally, they note. Microscopic wear on the inside edges of the shell perforations indicate that the items were held on a cord of some kind. Red pigment on the shell beads apparently resulted from rubbing against pigment-coated hide, skin, or thread.

These discoveries suggest that people in Africa and southwestern Asia made beads long before their European counterparts started to do so, about 40,000 years ago, Bouzouggar and his colleagues argue. Even 80,000 years ago or more, shell beads carried some sort of symbolic meaning as well as aesthetic appeal for their makers, the scientists propose in the June 12 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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