Early human ancestors were captivated by eye-catching shells, ushering in a transformative shift in how they perceived themselves and others. A recent study, led by Francesco d’Errico, Karen Loise van Niekerk, Lila Geis, and Christopher Stuart Henshilwood from Bergen University in Norway and the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) in Johannesburg, South Africa, has been published in the Journal of Human Evolution. This study’s profound findings shed light on the origins of our modern human identities.
The study’s significance lies in the revelation that unaltered shells with natural holes, dating back 100,000 to 73,000 years, were gathered and, in some instances, possibly worn as personal adornments. This predates a phase during which specific shell species were deliberately and skillfully perforated to craft composite beadworks, marking a significant cultural shift.
These intriguing shells were unearthed in Blombos Cave, situated along the southern Cape of South Africa’s coastline. Notably, similar shells have been discovered in North Africa, other locations in South Africa, and the Mediterranean Levant. This corroborating evidence extends the argument beyond Blombos Cave, reinforcing the notion that early humans across various regions were drawn to these eye-catching shells for cultural expression.
Confirms scant evidence of early beadwork
In simpler terms, the discovery of unaltered and naturally perforated shells offers compelling evidence that our ancestors collected these marine shells and likely used them as personal adornments. This practice predates the more advanced techniques used to modify shells for crafting beadworks, which emerged around 70,000 years ago.
Van Niekerk emphasizes that these shells are distinct from edible shellfish species typically collected for food. The evidence supporting this distinction is derived from the shells’ condition, many of which show signs of being already deceased when gathered. This is evident from their water-worn appearance, internal growths, natural predator holes, or abrasions caused by wave action.
To gain insights into the shells’ purpose, the researchers meticulously measured their size, examined the holes and the wear around them, which developed while the shells were strung on strings by humans. Additionally, they assessed the spatial distribution of the shells within the site to identify clusters that might have comprised single items of beadwork. These techniques provide valuable insights into the likely symbolic significance of these shells in early human culture.
Early signs of possibly creation of identity
Van Niekerk and the research team have identified 18 previously undiscovered marine snail shells dating back 100,000 to 70,000 years. These shells hold the potential for symbolic use and contribute to the formulation of a multi-step process in the cultural evolution of the human body, tracing its origins deep in our history.
“This study underscores a gradual but profound transformation in human practices, where individuals began intricately modifying their appearance, effectively turning themselves into tools for communication and information storage,” notes van Niekerk. Moreover, the findings suggest a gradual yet significant shift in the creation of human identity, reshaping how we perceive ourselves and others, as well as the dynamics of our societies.
Source: Wits University