Evidence of 120,000-Year-Old String Discovered in Israeli Cave
A team of archaeologists excavating a cave in Israel have made the incredible discovery of a collection of shells that were once threaded onto strings and worn by humans as beads 120,000 years ago. Archaeologists have previously discovered evidence of shells being used as adornments by humans across Africa and in the Eastern Mediterranean, but nothing like this group of shells has ever been found before. The Israeli team of archaeologists from Tel Aviv University made the remarkable discovery at the Qafzeh cave near Nazareth, and they say the prehistoric humans collected the shells 120,000 years ago and strung them together to act like decorative beads.
Map of sites mentioned in the study and the location of Misliya and Qafzeh caves. Bottom left: Misliya excavation area and stratigraphy. (Bar-Yosef Mayer et al/Plos One )
Untwisting the Deep-History of Cordage
The Qafzeh cave in Israel was found to contain dozens of human skeletons who lived there during the Mediterranean Paleolithic period. Among these human remains the unique collection of shells were found to have been painted with ochre. According to Jewish News , the discovery of 120,000-year-old string and with the perforated shells is different to all other similar findings, demonstrating “one of the earliest instances of strings being used to hang objects.”
The archaeological project was funded by the American School of Prehistoric Research at Harvard University and The Israel Science Foundation grant . When discussing the new paper published in PLOS ONE with Jewish News , Dr. Daniella Bar-Yosef Mayer of Tel Aviv University explains that “the fact that almost all of the specimens found in the archaeological sites are perforated, albeit naturally, suggests their collection is intentional and is meant to enable their stringing and display.”
Shells Were All the Rage 120,000 Years Ago
A PLOS release published on Eureka Alert says that to test their theory the team applied microscopic analysis of the shell’s wear-and-tear patterns which were found to be specific to string suspension. The researchers went out and collected the same species of clamshells as those found in the cave and hung them on strings made from wild flax. These strings were then abraded against various materials like sand, stone and leather, to test how the shells had been worn or used.
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While is it is not at this time possible to determine the precise symbolic meaning of the shell beads recovered from Qafzeh cave, the new paper says bivalve shells are “a frequent hallmark across Paleolithic sites” and this gives a sense of their importance. However, where this discovery differs from all other prehistoric shell discoveries is in the use of string, which suggests that it was not just the collection of shells that was important, but the displaying of these shells to others was also culturally significant.
What this discovery represents, as a whole, is one of the earliest examples of objects or artifacts being hung on string, which enlightens archaeologists on the origins of string-making technology that is thought to have emerged between 160-120,000 years ago. In conclusion, in the PLOS release, Dr. Bar-Yosef Mayer explains that while modern humans collected unperforated cockle shells for symbolic purposes 160,000 years ago or earlier, it is now clear that around 120,000 years ago they started “collecting perforated shells and wearing them on a string.” This means strings would have had many more applications within this time frame.
In April 2020 Ancient Origins reported on the discovery of fibers in France from 41,000 to 52,000 years ago. Top: SEM photo of Neanderthal cord from Abri du Maras. (Credit: M-H. Moncel) Bottom: Close-up of modern flax cordage showing twisted fibre construction. (Credit: S. Deryck)
This paper comes only months after Ancient Origins reported on the discovery of 41,000–52,000 year old fibers that were “twisted together,” which was described as “the oldest known direct evidence of someone using fibers to create string.” Professor Bruce Hardy told Ancient Origins that this discovery was a “huge step in our understanding of Neanderthals and helped demonstrate that they were not so different from us.”
Thanks to the new research published in PLOS ONE , this date has been pushed back even further, all the way to 120,000 years ago, where it will remain, for now.
Top image: The discovery that a collection of shells were threaded onto 120,000-year-old strings, at a cave in Israel is an important discovery which advances our understanding of human evolution. Source: Bar-Yosef Mayer et al/Plos One/PA Wire
By Ashley Cowie