Early jewellery, a set of shell beads estimated to be 75 000 years old, is discovered in South Africa

Set of shell beads estimated to be 75 000 years old Image source

Friday, 16 April 2004

On 16 April 2004, a set of shell beads estimated to be 75 000 years old was discovered in the Blombos cave, overlooking the Indian Ocean, near Stilbaai.

The discovery is believed to be the oldest known jewellery, as the beads are more than 30,000 years older than any other known human jewellery. The newly discovered beads were made from the shells of a type of mollusc and were found with drilled holes, suggesting that they had been strung together as a necklace.

The discovery of Stone Age beads in South Africa supports the theory that traits associated with modern people, such as using symbolic items, developed earlier, rather than thousands of years later after humans migrated to the Middle East and Europe. The previously oldest known human ornaments were perforated teeth and eggshell beads from Bulgaria and Turkey aged 41 000 to 43 000 years, and 40 000-year-old ostrich-shell beads from Kenya.

Prof. Henshilwood, head of the research team, believed the discovery of these beads "provide[s] material evidence that by 75 000 years ago, human communication was mediated by symbolism, an unambiguous marker of modern human behaviour."

Alison Brooks, who teaches anthropology at George Washington University, said, "I think that beads are an unequivocal argument that people are employing symbols to signify who they are."

There is a great argument over the degree to which early humans engaged in symbolic activity before they left Africa. This find indicates that humans had this ability earlier than previously thought, said Brooks, who was not part of the research team.

Anthropology professor Sally McBrearty of the University of Connecticut agreed that the find pushes back the earliest date of human symbolic activity, adding, "I think this date will be pushed back further, ultimately."

References:
• Radford, T., World's oldest jewellery found in cave, from The Gaurdian, [online], Available at www.theguardian.com [Accessed: 16 April 2014]
• Giliomee et al. (2007), New History of South Africa. Tafelberg Publishers: Cape Town. pg 15.

Last updated : 13-Apr-2017

This article was produced by South African History Online on 16-Mar-2011

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