Ancient pearls are the first sign of communication with fashion

Researchers have found shell beads in a cave in Morocco that are at least 142,000 years old.

Researchers say they are the first known evidence that humans communicate about themselves through their clothing. The discovery also sheds new light on the evolution of human cognitive abilities and social interactions.

“They were probably part of the way people expressed their identity with their clothes,” says Steven L. Kuhn, professor of anthropology at the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Arizona.

“They are the tip of the iceberg for this kind of human trait. They show that it was present even hundreds of thousands of years ago, and that humans were interested in communicating with larger groups of people than their immediate friends and family.

An international team of archaeologists recovered the 33 pearls, between 2014 and 2018, in a cave in western Morocco. (Credit: Steven L. Kuhn)

How does this ancient form of communication look today? This happens often, says Kuhn.

“You think about how society works – someone follows you in traffic, honks their horns and flashes their lights, and you ask yourself, ‘What’s your problem? ”, Says Kuhn. “But if you see that they are wearing a blue uniform and a peaked cap, you realize that a policeman is arresting you.”

Seashells: a fossilized form of basic communication

Kuhn and an international team of archaeologists recovered the 33 pearls between 2014 and 2018 near the mouth of the Bizmoune cave, about 16 km inland from Essaouira, a town on the Atlantic coast of Morocco. .

Kuhn co-directs archaeological research at the Bizmoune cave with Abdeljalil Bouzouggar, professor at the National Institute of Archaeological Sciences and Heritage in Rabat, Morocco, and Phillipe Fernandez, from Aix-Marseille University in France, who are co-authors of the study.

El Mehdi Sehasseh, a graduate student of the National Institute of Archaeological and Heritage Sciences, who carried out the detailed pearl study, is the lead author of the study, published in Scientists progress.

The beads are made from sea snail shells and are each approximately half an inch long. Holes in the center of the beads, along with other signs of wear, indicate that they were hung from strings or clothing, Kuhn says.

The pearls are like many others found at sites across North and Southern Africa, but previous examples do not date back more than 130,000 years. The ancient pearls of North Africa are associated with the Aterian, a Middle Stone Age culture known for its distinctive rod spearheads, whose inhabitants hunted gazelles, wildebeest, warthogs and rhinos, among other animals.

The pearls serve as potential clues for anthropologists studying the evolution of human cognition and communication. Researchers have long been interested in the appearance of language. But there was no material trace of language until a few thousand years ago, when humans started to write things.

Pearls, says Kuhn, are essentially a fossilized form of basic communication. “We don’t know what they meant, but these are clearly symbolic objects that were deployed so that other people could see them,” he says.

More questions than answers

Pearls are also notable for their durable shape. Rather than painting their bodies or faces with ocher or charcoal, as many people did, the beadmakers made something more permanent, Kuhn says, suggesting that the message they had intention to pass on was lasting and important.

In many ways, pearls raise more questions than they answer. Kuhn says that he and his colleagues are now interested in knowing why the Aterians felt the need to make the beads when they did. They explore several possible explanations. One, says Kuhn, concerns a growing population; As more and more people began to occupy North Africa, they may have needed ways to identify themselves.

It is also possible that people in North Africa began to use the method of communication at a time when the climate was cold and dry. They may have developed clans or other allegiances to protect limited resources, and then perhaps used the beads to express their ethnicity or other identity to show they belonged to a certain region, Kuhn says.

“It’s one thing to know that people were able to make them,” says Kuhn, “but then the question becomes, ‘OK, what made them do it? “”

Source: University of Arizona

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