It was hardly bling worthy of an East Coast rapper, but stashes of symbolic jewellery found recently in the desert of Morocco dating back 82,000 years are being hailed as vital discoveries in the scientific quest to establish the earliest juncture between human culture and cognition. Unearthed at four different spots, the items comprise 25 tiny marine shell beads, drilled with holes and showing evidence of pigment and frequent wear. They were found as part of the European Science Foundation‘s EUROCORES programme: Origin of Man, Language and Languages.
So early humans had a little bit of fashion sense whats the big deal? Because it shows that it they werent just thinking about how to dress up, but also communicate an impression of themselves through a coded cultural language.
The common element among such ornaments is that they transmit meaning to others, said Francesco dErrico, lead author and director of research at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), in an ESF press release. They convey an image of you that is not just your biological self. The early invention of the personal ornament is one of the most fascinating cultural experiments in human history.
The fact that many of the shell beads were found far inland, well away from the coast, suggests that they were probably considered valuable items, traded between communities. Either people went to sea and collected them, or more likely marine shell beads helped create and maintain exchange networks between coastal and inland peoples, said dErrico. This shows well-structured human culture that attributed meaning to these things. Organised networks would also assist trading of other items, as well as genetic and cultural exchange so these shells help reveal the connections between cognition and culture.
Until as recently as 2006, when shell beads dating back 75,000 years were found in the African and Near Eastern desert, the invention of personal ornaments was thought to be a European thing originating around the time of the colonisation of the continent 40,000 years ago. These new discoveries join a lock-box of new precious finds dating back way further still some other similar items unearthed recently in Algeria, Morocco, Israel and South Africa date from as early as 110,000 years ago.
Picture by d’Errico/Vanhaeren. All rights reserved.