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

On this day in 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 the sea snail species Nassarius kraussianus and were found with drilled holes (believed to have been made with a boon tool), 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. Professor Chris 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”.

Until the discovery, the first use of personal ornaments was thought to occur with the arrival of Homo sapiens in Europe, some 40 000 years ago. Most academics now believe that marine shells were used as beads in the Near East, North Africa, and Sub-Saharan Africa at least 30 000 years earlier than in Europe.

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