Shells are one of the oldest ways humans have adorned and expressed themselves, with examples of deliberately-collected shell assemblages at human sites dating as far back as 160,000 years ago found across North Africa, South Africa, and the Eastern Mediterranean. Shells from one Mediterranean Paleolithic site, Qafzeh Cave (dated to 120,000 years ago) are all naturally perforated (in contrast to the unperforated shells found at a nearby older site, Misliya Cave), suggesting that these shells were deliberately collected and strung together as beads.
Microscopic analysis of the five best-preserved Qafzeh Cave shells revealed traces consistent with those created in the simulated shells via contact with a string, as well as traces of shell-to-shell contact (indicating the shells hung closely together). Four of the five original shells also revealed traces of an ochre coloring treatment.
Though it’s not possible to determine the precise symbolic meaning of the shell bead strand from Qafzeh Cave, the fact that bivalve shells are a frequent hallmark across Paleolithic sites gives a sense of their importance. Additionally, the presence of a string seems to suggest that not only was shell collection important–the ability to display the shells to others also likely held significance. As one of the earliest instances of perforated objects hung on strings, the Qafzeh Cave shells also bring us closer to understanding the origins of string-making technology probably between 160-120,000 years ago.
Bar-Yosef Mayer adds: “Modern humans collected unperforated cockle shells for symbolic purposes at 160,000 years ago or earlier, and around 120,000 they started collecting perforated shells and wearing them on a string. We conclude that strings, which had many more applications, were invented within this time frame.”
Funding: Financial support came from the American School of Prehistoric Research, Harvard University and The Israel Science Foundation grant 1973/16 to DEBYM. The Qafzeh excavations (1965-1979) received support from the CNRS and the Ministère Français des Affaires Étrangères, the Centre de Recherche Français de Jérusalem, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Tel-Aviv University and The University of Bordeaux to BV and OBY (no grant numbers available). The Misliya Cave project was supported by the Dan David Foundation, Leakey Foundation, Irene Levi-Sala CARE archaeological foundation, Faculty of Humanities of the University of Haifa (no grant numbers available) and the Israel Science Foundation (grant no. 1104/12) to MWE.
Competing Interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.
The article is freely available article in PLOS ONE: https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0234924
Contacts and sources:
Daniella Bar-Yosef Mayer
Publication:Bar-Yosef Mayer DE, Groman-Yaroslavski I, Bar-Yosef O, Hershkovitz I, Kampen-Hasday A, Vandermeersch B, et al. (2020) On holes and strings: Earliest displays of human adornment in the Middle Palaeolithic. PLoS ONE 15(7): e0234924. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0234924
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