Shell Beads and Behavioral Modernity

01
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Shell Beads and Behavioral Modernity

Nassarius shell beads from Grotte des Pigeons at Taforalt excavated in 2009
Nassarius shell beads from Grotte des Pigeons at Taforalt excavated in 2009. (c) Institute of Archaeology, credit I Cartwright

The oldest Homo sapiens remains discovered to date were recovered from the Bouri site, in Ethiopia, in strata dated to ~160,000 years ago. But, as far as we have been able to recognize, the general physical build of Homo sapiens didn't carry with it any of the cultural, social, and behavioral characteristics we have today.

The point at which human beings became human beings—-that is to say, the point at which the physical frame of Homo sapiens was accompanied by modern behaviors—-was traditionally pegged as the end of the Middle Paleolithic and the beginning of the Upper Paleolithic, about 45,000 years ago. But research over the last twenty years has shown that the transition to what archaeologists and paleoanthropologists call "behavioral modernity" was not a point in time, but rather a process extending over many tens of thousands of years.

One of the key pieces of evidence for that transition to modernity is shell beads. Perforated shell beads have been identified at Middle Stone Age sites in Africa and the near east, dated to between 70,000 and 130,000 ago. Those discoveries are part of the growing evidence that human behavioral modernity is much older than what was formerly believed.

This photo essay of shell beads recovered from ancient Homo sapiens sites addresses some of the issues of behavioral modernity, and what it means to be human.

Sources and Further Information

Bouzouggar, A., et al. 2007 82,000-year-old shell beads from North Africa and implications for the origins of modern human behavior. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104(24):9964-9969.

Vanhaeren, Marian, et al. 2006 Middle Paleolithic Shell Beads in Israel and Algeria. Science 312:1785-1788.

Bibliography of Behavioral Modernity

02
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The Creative Explosion

Chauvet Cave Lions
Photograph of a group of lions, painted on the walls of Chauvet Cave in France, at least 27,000 years ago. HTO

Traditionally, the transition between Middle and Upper Paleolithic is thought to have been marked at ~45,000 years ago. This transition was known as the "Creative Explosion", when Paleolithic cave paintings, sophisticated hunting techniques, portable art such as Venus figurines, and other cultural traits were thought to have first appeared. But twenty years of research in South Africa, North Africa and the Levant have increased the time depth of this explosion, leading researchers to the inescapable conclusion that the "explosion" started in Africa, perhaps as long ago as 250,000 years ago, culminating in the Upper Paleolithic ca ~45,0000.

Interestingly, there is now more evidence of modern behaviors between 70,000 and 100,000 years ago than there is between 70,000 and 45,000 years ago. It remains to be seen whether this situation is an anomaly based on our admittedly less-than-complete data set of the world's paleoanthropology, or a reflection that modern behavior had an early flourishing, then went dormant for some 25,000 years.

Sources and Further Information

Bibliography of Behavioral Modernity

Paleolithic cave paintings

Bouzouggar, A., et al. 2007 82,000-year-old shell beads from North Africa and implications for the origins of modern human behavior. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104(24):9964-9969.

Vanhaeren, Marian, et al. 2006 Middle Paleolithic Shell Beads in Israel and Algeria. Science 312:1785-1788.

03
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What is Behavioral Modernity?

Middle Stone Age/Late Stone Age Arrow Points
Bone points from MSA deposits at Blombos Cave (a), Peers Cave (b), Sibudu Cave (c) and Klasies River (d); Later Stone Age layers at Rose Cottage Cave (e) and Jubilee Shelter (f), and an Iron Age occupation at Mapungubwe (g). Lucinda Backwell (c) 2008

So what do scholars mean when they say "behavioral modernity"? McBrearty and Brooks (citation below, and worth reading, every 111 pages of it) provided a list of four main areas of human existence that saw change and growth between the Lower Paleolithic and the beginning of the Upper Paleolithic.

Ecology

  • Enlarged geographic range
  • Marine resource exploitation (fish and shellfish)

Technology

Economy and Social organization

  • Specialized hunting for different species
  • Group (organized) hunting
  • Structured settlements, with hearths and living spaces
  • Use of complex language
  • Expanded exchange networks
  • Systematic burials of adults and children
  • Care for the elderly and infirm

Symbolic behavior

Sources and Further Information

Middle Stone Age Points from Sibudu Cave

Bibliography of Behavioral Modernity

Bouzouggar, A., et al. 2007 82,000-year-old shell beads from North Africa and implications for the origins of modern human behavior. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104(24):9964-9969.

Klein, Richard G. 2008 Out of Africa and the Evolution of Human Behavior. Evolutionary Anthropology 17:267-281.

McBrearty, Sally and Alison S. Brooks 2000 The revolution that wasn't: a new interpretation of the origin of modern human behavior. Journal of Human Evolution 39(5):453-563.

Nowell A. 2010. Defining Behavioral Modernity in the Context of Neandertal and Anatomically Modern Human Populations. Annual Review of Anthropology 39(1):437-452.

Vanhaeren, Marian, et al. 2006 Middle Paleolithic Shell Beads in Israel and Algeria. Science 312:1785-1788.

04
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Ancient Shell Beads from Ancient Homo Sapiens Sites

Dr Bouzouggar excavating shell
Dr Bouzouggar excavating shell. (c) Institute of Archaeology, credit I Cartwright

Personal ornamentation, as indicated by the presence of perforated marine shell beads stained with red ochre, particularly when discovered far from marine contexts, is considered unequivocal evidence of behavioral modernity. Bead use has no explicit function, except for symbolic constructions: for pretty, for memory, for individuality, for some lost significance we'll never be able to reconstruct.

The oldest shell bead evidence is from Skhul Cave, in the Levant, where two Nassarius spp. shells may hve been recovered from strata dated between 100,00-135,000 years old (the data is a bit ambiguous). The oldest perforated shells in a burial context are from Qafzeh Cave in the Levant, where four perforated Glycymeris spp. mollusc shells were found stained with red ochre and in contexts dated to 92,000 years ago.

Middle Stone Age Shell

Aterian sites including Grotte des Pigeons (Taforalt, Morocco) held several perforated and ochre-stained examples of Nassarius gibbosulus shell beads, from levels dated ~82,000 years ago. Nassarius gibbosulus beads have also been found at the Aterian sites of Oued Djebbana (Algeria) and Grotte Zouhra (Morocco).

Shell beads from Howiesons Poort sites in South Africa include Blombos Cave in South Africa had 41 perforated Nassarius kraussianus shells, in Howiesons Poort levels dated to ~75,000 years ago; these were also red ochre stained.

Sources and Further Information

Bibliography of Behavioral Modernity

Bouzouggar, A., et al. 2007 82,000-year-old shell beads from North Africa and implications for the origins of modern human behavior. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104(24):9964-9969.

Vanhaeren, Marian, et al. 2006 Middle Paleolithic Shell Beads in Israel and Algeria. Science 312:1785-1788.

Aterian

Howiesons Poort

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Shell Beads from Still Bay and Howiesons Poort Early Modern Human Sites

Rocky Shore Near Stillbai Blombos South Africa
Rocky Shore Near Stillbai Blombos South Africa. Le Snoop

  • Border Cave, 76,000 (Still Bay industry), 1 perforated Conus shell
  • Blombos Cave, 75,000 (Still Bay), 41 perforated Nassarius kraussianus shell beads, usewear and ochre staining
  • Sibudu Cave, >70,000 (Still Bay), 6 Afrolittorina africana, 3 perforated
  • Diepkloof Shelter, 55,000 BP (Howiesons Poort), engraved ostrich shell

Still Bay (~77,000-70,000 BP) and Howiesons Poort (~66,000-58,000) are two early modern human industries with evidence for what archaeologists term 'behavioral modernity'. The artifacts in Still Bay assemblages include crescent-shaped blades and lanceolate stone and bone projectile points, red ochre and abstract portable art. Howiesons Poort and Still Bay sites are found in South Africa.

Perforations on the shell beads from Blombos are believed to have been created by piercing the shell with a sharp bone point; use-wear recorded on the perforation, the outer lip and parietal wall suggests that the shells were strung and worn. Thirty-one of the beads were found in groups of five to twelve beads; in the groups, the beads are similar in coloration, use-wear pattern and perforation size. Blombos is 20 kilometers from the nearest habitat for Nassarius tick shells, and 34.5 meters above sea level. The shells range between 7 and 11 mm in length.

One of the Sibudu cave Afrolittorina africana has extensive micro-chipping with red ochre stains. The piercing of the specimens from Sibudu is believed on the basis of experimental studies to have been made with bone or wooden awls. One of these shells is from a Howiesons Poort level, other five are from Still Bay. Sibudu is 15 kilometres from the shoreline and 100 meters above the sea. The shells measure between 5 and 8 millimeters in length.

Sources and Further Information

Bibliography of Behavioral Modernity

06
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Shell Beads from Aterian Early Modern Human Sites

Close-up of Nassarius perforated shell bead, Grotte des Pigeons, Taforalt, Morocco
Close-up of Nassarius perforated shell bead, Grotte des Pigeons, Taforalt, Morocco. (c) Institute of Archaeology, credit I Cartwright

  • Grotte des Pigeons, 82,500, 13 perforated Nassarius gibbosulus, 10 stained with red ochre
  • Oued Djebbana, 60,000-90,000, 1 Nassarius gibbosulus

The Aterian industry is associated with early modern humans across most of North Africa, from Morocco to Egypt. Leaf-shaped and tanged projectile points, and a range of sophisticated stone tools characterize the assemblages. While dates for the Aterian are currently under debate, the industry is believed to span between about 90,000 and 40,000 years ago.

The 13 Nassarius gibbosulus shells recovered from Grotte des Pigeons were all collected as dead shells from the Mediterranean coastline, some 40 kilometers away. It is apparent that at least some of the shells were purposefully perforated. Use wear on the shels appears to suggest the shells were suspended by a cord of some kind. Red ochre stained one unperforated and non perforated shells. The length of the shells ranges between 15-18 mm, larger than the current size of modern representatives and with a slightly thicker shell.

Oued Djebbana is an open-air site, located some 200 kilometers from the Mediterranean coastline in Algeria. A single perforated N. gibbosulus was recovered from the Aterian components, that has been perforated, probably punched using a bone or wooden awl. The shell measured about 16 mm long.

Sources and Further Information

Bibliography of Behavioral Modernity

Bouzouggar, A., et al. 2007 82,000-year-old shell beads from North Africa and implications for the origins of modern human behavior. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104(24):9964-9969.

Vanhaeren, Marian, et al. 2006 Middle Paleolithic Shell Beads in Israel and Algeria. Science 312:1785-1788.

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Shell Beads from Levantine Mousterian Early Modern Human Sites

The two perforated Nassarius gibbosulus from the Mousterian layers of Skhul, Scale = 1 cm.
The two perforated Nassarius gibbosulus from the Mousterian layers of Skhul, Scale = 1 cm. Image courtesy of Drs. Marian Vanhaeren and Francesco d'Errico

  • Skhul cave, 100,000 bp, (Mousterian), 2 perforated Nassarius gibbosulus beads
  • Qafzeh Cave (Mousterian), 90,000, 10 Glycymeris insubrica shells, 4 perforated, one stained with red ochre

The Mousterian industry is a Middle Paleolithic stone tool industry characterized by the so-called Levallois technique, a stone tool making technique that illustrates far more subtlety of manufacture than the earlier Acheulean hand axes. Mousterian is associated both with early modern humans and with our cousins, the Neanderthals. Levallois technique artifacts show up in the archaeological record about ~200,000 years ago, and they disappeared completely by ~30,000 years ago.

The four Glycymeris insubrica from Qafzeh Cave include both natural abrasion and purposeful grooving and perforating, and use-wear is visible on some of them. Notches and usewear patterns on some of them are interpreted as indications that the shells were suspended from a cord of some kind. Red ochre and manganese stains are also visible. Qafzeh cave is some 40 kilometers from the nearest Glycymeris habitat, and well above sea level. Unperforated shells were recovered from Levantine Mousterian sites of Ras el Kelb and Sefunim Rockshelter.

Skhul Cave (also called Es-Skhul), is located about 3.5 km from the Mediterranean shore. Four shell species (Acanthocardia deshayesii, Laevicardium crassum, Nassarius gibbosulus, and Pecten jacobaeus) were recovered from the cave during the original excavations in the 1930s. The shells were from layers which were subsequently dated to between 100-120,000 years BP; but the specific provenience was not recorded. Two of the Nassarius shells were examined and reported in 2006; they were found to have been purposefully perforated.

Sources and Further Information

Bibliography of Behavioral Modernity

08
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Collected Shell Species by Early Modern Humans

Two hands full of modern Nassarius gibbosulus shells.
Two hands full of modern Nassarius gibbosulus shells. Image courtesy of Drs. Marian Vanhaeren and Francesco d'Errico

Afrolittorina africana are an intertidal species, which currently range from False Bay in South Africa to KwaZulu-Natal in southern Mozambique and southeastern Madagascar. The species lives on exposed rocks at the top of the intertidal shore, and can be found in vast numbers in little tidal pools. Modern shells range between 6 and 10 mm.

Nassarius kraussianus, the tick shell, is a small scavenging gastropod which is adapted to estuarine environments. Live shells are found in wracks of dead estuarine grass along the coastal zones of South Africa; the grass is known to have been used by Late Stone Age hunter-gatherers for bedding. Tests on collection strategies of the modern shell suggest the shells and shell meat weight are too small to warrant exploitation for food.

Nassarius gibbosulus is a small gastropod found in the central eastern Mediterranean today. It is a scavenging marine gastropod that lives in shallow waters on pure sand. Modern shells range between 6 and 10 mm.

Glycymeris insubrica is a bivalve, native to the Mediterranean sea. Its habitat of preference is stable sandy coastal waters and shallow shelves along the eastern Mediterranean. Shells range from 10-38 mm in length.

Sources and Further Information

Bibliography of Behavioral Modernity

Bouzouggar, A., et al. 2007 82,000-year-old shell beads from North Africa and implications for the origins of modern human behavior. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104(24):9964-9969.

Vanhaeren, Marian, et al. 2006 Middle Paleolithic Shell Beads in Israel and Algeria. Science 312:1785-1788.