Archaeologists working at a prehistoric site in Israel have found evidence that early humans who alive 120,000 years ago collected perforated shells and strung them together as beads.
The discovery of several similar examples of collected ancient shells was made at the Qafzeh Cave near Nazareth, which contains dozens of skeletons of humans who lived there during the Mediterranean Paleolithic period.
Evidence of shells being used as adornments by humans has been found across Africa and in the Eastern Mediterranean, but researchers say the Qafzeh Cave shells – many of which were painted with ochre – also show one of the earliest instances of strings being used to hang objects.
Daniella Bar-Yosef Mayer of Tel Aviv University 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.”
The researchers collected the same species of clamshells found in the cave, hung them on strings made from wild flax and abrading them against different materials like leather, sand, and stone, in order to work out how their discoveries grew worn.
Using this technique and subsequent microscopic analysts they were able identify wear-and-tear patterns specific to string suspension, but cannot say what their symbolic meaning was, if any.
“The fact that almost all of the specimens found in the archaeological sites are perforated, albeit naturally, suggests their collection is intentional and is meant to enable their stringing and display,” they said.