Sometime around 160,000 to 120,000 years ago, early man began to string together painted shells and display them, according to a new international, interdisciplinary study published in the open-sourced PLOS One journal this week.
The authors, a team of scientists led by Tel Aviv University’s Daniella E. Bar-Yosef Mayer and University of Haifa’s Iris Groman-Yaroslavski, performed “use-wear” experiments on bittersweet clam (Glycymeris) shell collections excavated in two northern Israel caves. They discovered that the naturally occurring holes in the bi-valve shells showed proof of having been strung on flax twine, apparently to form early humans’ first necklaces.
Until now, the earliest potential example of string use was in the form of fibers found on an eagle talon recently found in Krapina, Croatia, dating to 130,000 years ago.
Early humans migrated out of Africa — potentially during a Levantine Ice Age — circa 200,000 years ago. With their arrival to the Israeli caves, also came their shell collections. In the new study, the authors suggest that the clam shells — which were abundantly found on the beaches not far from the Carmel Mountain caves — were chosen precisely because of their easily strung holes.
“Our data suggest that sometime within the time range of 160 and 120 ka BP the technology for making strings emerged, and that this technology boosted the collection of naturally perforated shells for display, a practice common to this day,” write the authors in the article, “On holes and strings: Earliest displays of human adornment in the Middle Palaeolithic.”
The authors describe a progression in shell choice: The shells found in the Misliya Cave, which date to 240,000–160,000 years ago, are intact and presumably not used for decorative purposes. In the Qafzeh Cave collection, circa 120,000 years ago, the vast majority of shells were perforated.
Which came first? The hole or the string?
In addition to describing a series of creative experiments to recreate the wear on the shells while being strung on twine, the authors include in their article potential psychological insights into the choice of these adornments.
The authors hypothesize that “modern humans collected naturally perforated Glycymeris shells also for symbolic use… [The collection] reflects both the desire and the technological ability to suspend shell beads on string to be displayed on the human body.”
Where there were early humans, there were bivalve shells, which are “considered a hallmark of modern human behavior,” write the authors. “That modern humans exhibited symbolic behavior is by now well established and the use of mollusc shell beads is an expression of this behavior.”
Taking the symbolism one step further, part of the stated research goal was “to examine the possibility that early Middle Palaeolithic humans collected naturally perforated shells in order to display them as body ornaments, as a means of communication.”
The authors suggest that the shells may indicate status, or even served as a charm. Their social role is significant, possibly marking the wearer’s place in kinship networks, marital status and group affiliation. They may have served as a type of charm to ward off the evil eye.
String ’em up
To discern which material was used for the presumed string, the scientists performed a series of trials. In the first stage, they essentially rubbed the shells against a variety of fabrics and studied the wear patterns in terms of polish, pitting, and striations. In the final stage of this trial, the wear patterns were documented using light microscope cameras and a scanning electron microscope (SEM), write the authors.
The second set of experiments was formed to study the traces on perforated shells that are strung on wild flax. The scientists tied the flax twine “by various methods, and put them in simulative settings where they hung loosely or were strung with knots, to create wear patterns produced through different binding modes.” They then recorded what happened when the string and shells rubbed together.
Of the perforated 10 clam shells discovered at Qafzeh Cave, five were in good enough shape for the experiment. The scientists concluded that not only were all five strung, four showed signs of having been painted with ochre. “These shells showed traces that were produced by contact with a string, coloring treatment with ochre and traces of shell-to-shell contact, all of which indicate that the valves had been arranged on a string,” write the authors.
In addition to the shell necklaces now being created, the scientists said that early man was changing his clothing style — also circa 160,000 to 120,000 years ago — and essentially getting new threads with the advent of, well, thread.
In a press release, Bar-Yosef Mayer said, “Modern humans collected unperforated cockle shells for symbolic purposes at 160,000 years ago or earlier, and around 120,000 they started collecting perforated shells and wearing them on a string. We conclude that strings, which had many more applications, were invented within this time frame.”