Africa ahead of Europe in civilization?

Seashells with holes and a smudge

A handful of small seashells with holes and a smudge of red have muddied the waters of human history yet again. Previously, researchers found some seashell beads very much like these in South Africa, beads obviously used for adornment and made about 75,000 years ago. The latest find, shells of the mollusk Nassarius gibbosulus, date back even further, to about 82,000 years ago, making them among the oldest examples of human civilization.

Much to the chagrin of experts who have argued that such artistic endeavors arose in Europe and the Middle East around 40,000 years ago, these beads—clear evidence of what the news media are calling the earliest “bling”—were found in Morocco, in northern Africa. Their strong similarity to the shell beads from South Africa suggest a free exchange of culture and symbolism. In fact, there are only two kinds of shell from this period that have been found in Africa and the Near East, although the people living in these areas had many more choices. This selection of such similar shells also signals a universally understood symbolism involving these beads.

A record competition

The truly oldest beads found so far were from Israel. They were two little beads dating back as far as 100,000 years, although the dating on these is iffy because they were found in the 1930s. Today’s dating methods are much more precise; in fact, the researchers who discovered the 13 Moroccan beads applied four different approaches to dating them, all of which agreed on their age.

The beads were found in the strangely named Cave of Pigeons (Grotte des Pigeons) in Taforalt, Morocco. Around the beads, the researchers also found stone tools and the remains of animals. They concluded that the tools, which were sharp, pointed rocks, were probably spearheads used for hunting. The animal bones, primarily from wild horses and rabbits, had simply been the remains of dinner.

Humans, artistic humans

Each of the small shells, no bigger than a thumbnail, had been perforated deliberately. Some showed signs of wear, as though they had been strung or beaded onto clothing or as a bracelet or necklace for regular use. And the shells bore the traces of red ocher, a pigment that also features in the beads identified in South Africa.

The researchers who found the beads weren’t actually looking for an earth-shattering archaeological find. Their true goal in investigating the limestone cave was to glean information about how climate change might have affected ancient humans. Instead, they found these shells, obviously transported to this inland cave, which at the time the beads were made was about 25 miles from the sea. The people who made them had the self-awareness necessary to desire adornment, and they also had an understanding of objects as symbols, rather than simply as the objects they actually are. In this case, the shells could have symbolized beauty or fashion, or even some form of currency.

Africa moves ahead of Europe

These finds are a blow to those who maintain that humans didn’t achieve any form of cultural modernity until they were in Europe around 35,000 years ago. No one has found items of such ancient origin in European sites. Thus, it seems that humans in Europe, rather than being ahead of their African peers, were actually lagging behind. The north and south Africans were apparently exchanging bead fashion tips tens of thousands of years before the shells were anything but, well, shells to humans in Europe.

The researchers couldn’t just find the beads and date them and then call it done. They had to prove that the snail shells had gotten to the site by human interference. To demonstrate this, the scientists had to rule out the presence of these animals in the walls of the cave, or that the shells were transported by a predator.

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