World’s Oldest Jewelry Excavated at a Moroccan Cave
Human beings have been wearing necklaces, bracelets, earrings, and other forms of jewelry for a long time. But the discovery of a cache of prehistoric Aterian sea snail shell beads at a cave in western Morocco has pushed the origin of this practice back farther than archaeologists and anthropologists ever expected. These seashell beads were determined to be somewhere between 142,000 and 150,000 years old, making them the oldest jewelry found anywhere in the world up to this time. The existence of these almost unimaginably ancient beads that were used to make the world’s oldest jewelry was announced to the world on September 22, in an article appearing in the journal Science Advances .
In collaboration with researchers from Morocco’s National Institute of Archaeological Sciences and Heritage in Rabat, Morocco, University of Arizona anthropologist Steven Kuhn led a series of excavations between 2014 and 2018 at Bizmoune Cave, which is located 10 miles (16 kilometers) inland from Morocco’s Atlantic coast.
During these digs, the scientists uncovered 33 ancient sea snail shell beads that had been constructed. The small jewelry beads were about a half-inch (a little over one centimeter) wide and had round holes carved through their centers. They showed signs of interior wear, which suggested the beads had been strung on a necklace or bracelet and used frequently.
"They were probably part of the way people expressed their identity with their clothing," Dr. Kuhn said in a University of Arizona press release about the world’s oldest jewelry’s discovery. "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."
Similar shell beads have been found at other archaeological digs in northern and southern Africa. But the oldest beads found before this had been made approximately 130,000 years ago. Uranium-series dating of the excavation layer that produced the Bizmoune Cave beads revealed they were at least 12,000 years older than this, and in some instances even more ancient than that.
Fig. 6 from the study showing photographs of Aterian sea snail shell beads from layer 4c at the Moroccan cave dig site. These beads are now considered to be the world’s oldest jewelry pieces. (A. Bouzouggar, INSAP, Morocco / Science Advances )
The World’s Oldest Jewelry Comes From the Aterian Culture
All the shell beads found at various sites in northern African samples are artifacts left behind by the Aterian culture, which occupied the region for more than 100,000 years during the Middle Stone Age. The oldest Aterian site dates back to 150,000 years ago, and this group didn’t disappear from the archaeological record until around 20,000 years ago.
The Aterians were anatomically modern humans. They were prodigious stone tool and weapons makers who survived by hunting animals that were common in North Africa in the prehistoric past (gazelles, rhinoceros, wildebeest, etc.). They also harvested marine animals and other resources from the nearby Atlantic Ocean, including their use of sea snail shells to make jewelry, as the latest study reveals.
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According to Kuhn, the bead jewelry the Aterians produced and wore can best be understood as a form of non-verbal communication. Anthropologists are uncertain when language was invented (they think it happened sometime between 50,000 and 150,000 years ago), so it’s possible the Aterians relied exclusively on non-verbal methods for sharing information.
"We don't know what they [the beads] meant, but they're clearly symbolic objects that were deployed in a way that other people could see them," Dr. Kuhn explained.
He believes the message or meaning of the beads was important and timeless, since the Aterians chose to create decorative objects that would last a long time to convey that message. Prehistoric people often decorated their faces and bodies with charcoal or ochre for ceremonial or communicative purposes, but these types of decorations were only temporary.
As they admit, Kuhn and his colleagues aren’t certain exactly what they Aterian people were trying to communicate with their jewelry.
Fig. 3 from the study showing five tanged Aterian culture artifacts from layer 4c at Bizmoune Cave. (A. Bouzouggar, INSAP, Morocco / Science Advances )
"It's one thing to know that people were capable of making them," Kuhn said. "But then the question becomes, 'OK, what stimulated them to do it?'"
The scientists are considering a number of possibilities.
One of their theories is that bead jewelry may have functioned as a type of nametag or identifying badge. Different individuals, families, clans, or villages may have wanted to distinguish themselves from others, especially as population grew in the region as the Stone Age progressed.
The jewelry may also have functioned as a status symbol . Depending on the design of a particular piece, shell bead jewelry may have helped political, social, cultural, economic, spiritual, or medical authority figures differentiate themselves from everyone else.
There is also the possibility that the Aterians wore jewelry for the same reason that most people do today because they liked the way it looked and believed it enhanced their appearance.
The international team of archaeologists recovered the 33 beads, between 2014 and 2018, from this cave site in western Morocco. (Steven L. Kuhn / The University of Arizona )
Pushing the Limits of Prehistoric Archaeology
Unfortunately, it is difficult for archaeologists and anthropologists to uncover specific information about the cultural, social, and spiritual practices of prehistoric peoples. Because these groups left no written records, researchers must sometimes make big leaps while speculating about such issues.
They are on firmer ground when researching hunting, cooking, or warfare practices. Prehistoric groups like the Aterians often left behind ample quantities of the stone or metal tools or weapons they used while engaging in these activities.
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There is an assumption that hunter-gatherer societies have shared many similarities throughout time. Consequently, anthropologists will make some educated projections about prehistoric hunter-gatherers , based on their knowledge of hunter-gatherer groups that survived into modern times.
But in the end, specific details that would reveal the true nature of ancient belief systems will remain a mystery. They are hidden by an immense passage of time and a lack of written materials that would allow long-extinct peoples to speak to us in their own languages and from their own perspectives.
Ancient jewelry like that found at Bizmoune Cave in Morocco can offer some clues about prehistoric peoples’ beliefs. But not enough to provide definitive answers to some of the most important questions scientists are asking.
Top image: T. gibbosula and C. rustica shells found in layer 4c of the cave in Morocco, which were beads from what is now known as the oldest jewelry in the world. Source: A. Bouzouggar, INSAP, Morocco / Science Advances
By Nathan Falde