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Press release

New research identifies Museum treasures as the world's oldest jewellery

Beads hold clues to origins of human behaviour

Two marine shells from the Natural History Museum's collections have been identified as beads, and are the world's oldest known items of jewellery. New research, published in the journal Science, has dated the shells at 100,000 years old, and determined that they had been artificially pierced for use as pendants or in necklaces. These tiny treasures offer new evidence to help scientists piece together the story of the evolution of modern behaviour.

The Natural History Museum's two shells were excavated between 1931 and 1932 from the cave of Skhul in Israel, in deposits also containing burials of early modern humans. The paper describing this new research also identifies a further shell bead more than 35,000 years old in the collections of the Musée de l'Homme, Paris, from the site of Oued Djebbana, Algeria. The same species of marine shell had been used for jewellery at Skhul and Oued Djebbana. In each case the shells must have been transported from the coast, which for Oued Djebbana is more than 160 kilometres away.

'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 Professor Chris Stringer, Research Leader in Human Origins at the Natural History Museum. '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.'

This new discovery is the latest piece of evidence to suggest that modern human behaviour originated in Africa and spread with early modern humans to the Middle East. Genetic and fossil data suggest humans originated in Africa about 200,000 years ago. In contrast, strong evidence for modern human behaviour such as art, symbolism and complex burials only appears in Europe about 40,000 years ago, at the same time as the appearance of modern humans (Cro-Magnons) in the region. Some researchers have argued that modern human behaviour evolved long after modern human anatomy, and its development in Africa about 50,000 years ago fuelled the subsequent dispersal of Homo sapiens from that continent to other regions, including Europe. However, the presence of modern human behaviour at a much earlier date had been inferred from shell beads and plaques of red ochre at Blombos Cave, South Africa, 75,000 years old, and from symbolic burials and pigment use at the caves of Skhul and Qafzeh in Israel, dated to about 100,000 years ago.

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

'The re-examination of our collections using modern techniques often leads to new discoveries,' said Chris Stringer. '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.'


Notes for editors

  • The paper, Middle Palaeolithic Shell Beads in Israel and Algeria, is published in the journal Science on 23 June 2006. The lead author for this paper is Marian Vanhaeren, from the Centre for the Evolution of Cultural Diversity, University College London. Other authors include Francesco d'Errico from the Institut de Préhistoire et de Géologie du Quaternaire, France, Henk K Mienis from Department of Zoology at Tel Aviv University in Israel and Professor Chris Stringer, Dr Jonathan Todd and Sarah James from the Natural History Museum in London.
  • Winner of the 2006 Independent award for the UK's favourite museum, gallery or heritage attraction at the Museum and Heritage Awards for Excellence, the Natural History Museum is also a world-leading science research centre. Through its collections and scientific expertise, the Museum is helping to conserve the extraordinary richness and diversity of the natural world with groundbreaking projects in 68 countries.

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