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World's oldest piece of jewellery

23 June 2006

Beads in the Natural History Museum's collection are dated to 100,000 years ago, the oldest jewellery ever found.

Shell beads have been dated to 100,000 years ago, the oldest jewellery discovered.

Shell beads have been dated to 100,000 years ago, the oldest jewellery discovered.

The two tiny marine shells have been identified as beads that have been artificially pierced for use as pendants or in necklaces.

This new evidence, published in the journal Science, will help scientists piece together the story of the evolution of modern behaviour.

The two shells were excavated between 1931 and 1932 from the cave of Skhul in Israel in deposits also containing early modern human burials.

Re-examining the beads

Dr Sarah James, Museum analytical geochemist, confirmed the date of the beads from Skhul by chemically matching the sediment stuck to one of the beads with sediments from the human burials at Skhul, previously dated to about 100,000 years old.

Modern human skull also dated to 100,000 years ago uncovered at the Skhul site.

Modern human skull also dated to 100,000 years ago uncovered at the Skhul site.

'The re-examination of our collections using modern techniques often leads to new discoveries,' said Professor Chris Stringer, Head of Human Origins at the Natural History Museum.

'We have more material from Skhul, and the research into the beads is part of a continuing restudy of this collection, in the hope that further light will be shed on modern human origins.'

Earlier evidence of modern human behaviour

Genetic and fossil data suggest humans originated in Africa about 200,000 years ago.

Flint uncovered at Skhul site may have been used to pierce the holes in the beads.

Flint uncovered at Skhul site may have been used to pierce the holes in the beads.

This research provides more evidence to suggest that modern human behaviour, such as art, symbolism and complex burials, originated in Africa earlier than previously thought and did not reach Europe until much later.

'This research shows that a long lasting and widespread bead-working tradition associated with early modern humans extended through Africa to the Middle East well before comparable evidence appears in Europe,' said Stringer.

'The research also supports the idea that modern human anatomy and behaviour have deep roots in Africa and were widespread by 75,000 years ago, even though they may not have appeared in Europe for another 35,000 years.'

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