Pure Pedantry

Fundamental to the questions of human evolution is the question: when did human beings start doing human-like things? Human-like things include tool making, having a home base, using language, and possessing an aesthetic sense. Unfortunately, figuring out when humans started using behaviors that we would call modern is a troublesome business because we can’t very well ask the people involved. We have to look at the remnants such people left behind and from these remnants attempt to infer the psychological world in which they lived.

One of the most compelling pieces of evidence used to prove modernity in human thought is ornamentation. Ornamentation implies a human psyche that not only understands symbols but possesses a desire to decorate — a desire to make things appear beautiful. This trait is decidedly human.

Anyway, from time to time archaeologists unearth an artifact of primitive peoples that suggests that they did this even earlier than we previously thought. Such was the case recently in Cave of Pigeons in Taforalt, Morocco. It was previously thought that the oldest human ornaments dated from about 40,000 years ago. The perforated shell beads discovered in Morocco are twice that old.

Bouzouggar et al., publishing in PNAS, report their findings on dating the shells.

Here is a picture of the ornaments (click to enlarge):


The interesting part about this finding besides the fact that it is older than other discovered cultural ornaments is that the shells were found in a place not at all close to water. The authors argue that the shells must have been transported at least 40 km to reach the site:

The Taforalt finds have a much more precise stratigraphic and chronological control than those from Djebbana and Skhul, but together with Blombos, this suggests that soon after 100,000 years, and possibly even earlier, personal ornamentation became a widespread practice in Africa and adjacent areas of southwest Asia. This finding implies that, in each of these regions, material culture indicative of one aspect of behavioral modernity was present long before the Upper Paleolithic of Eurasia…Is this an early manifestation of symbolic behavior, by which we mean the use of something that represents something else by convention, or is it simply a form of material expression requiring no established link between a meaning and a sign? First archaeological instances of modern behavior are notoriously ambiguous. However, results presented above and evidence from other sites indicate that the choice, transport, coloring, and long-term wearing of these items were part of a deliberate, shared, and transmitted nonutilitarian behavior. We argue that to be conveyed from one generation to another over a very wide geographic area, such behavior must have implied powerful conventions that could not have survived if they were not intended to record some form of meaning.

Furthermore, documented lithic raw-material procurement patterning in the African MSA and the Levantine Mousterian only exceptionally exceeds 100 km and generally is much lower. The transport of shells over distances up to 200 km (Oued Djebbana) and of >40 km, in the case of the shell beads from Taforalt, may suggest the existence, already at this early stage, of previously unrecorded interlinking exchange systems or of long-distance social networks. (Citations removed. Emphasis mine.)

The long distance transport of the shells may imply some sort of trade or cultural exchange existed at the time.

Neat stuff.

Hat-tip: Eurekalert.


  1. #1 J-Dog
    June 18, 2007

    Any indication that this was a Honey-I’m-Sorry “make-up” present from a direct ancestor of Kobe Bryant?

  2. #2 Ed Yong
    June 18, 2007

    Presumably before we got to the nicley perforated shell beads, there would have been a stage where ornaments were very, very basic (e.g. feather stuck in hair) and would be archaeologically indistinguishable from junk or random objects?

    If this line of logic holds (and I’m more than happy for someone to tell me why it doesn’t), humans would have started using rudimentary ornaments far longer than 82,000 years ago?

  3. #3 Ken Watts
    June 18, 2007

    The fascinating thing to me is that we humans have such a long pre-history. We tend to think that human culture began with the first civilizations. But it’s really quite possible that the historical period we live in is just a temporary aberation. (as compared to the time we’ve been here and been human)

    If we were capable of art and tools and trade, etc. that long before the first cities, we might have found our way to science and advanced technology even earlier, if we had never been enslaved by kings and priests.

  4. #4 KOBE
    January 30, 2008