Shell Beads and Social Behaviour in Pleistocene Australia

Article excerpt


Personal ornament has long been recognised as a hallmark of modern human behaviour (d'Errico et al. 2005; Mellars 2005), and beads and pendants are among the oldest unambiguous evidence of its use. In the Old World, evidence for the age, raw materials, standardised manufacturing techniques and the distance that some beads have been found from their original source, has been used to suggest that they were made with a preconceived final product in mind for a particular aesthetic effect and were perhaps involved in long distance trade. Pleistocene Australian beads with the same characteristics can be argued to be equally significant for the early human occupation of Australia.

Distribution and age of the earliest beads

At Qafzeh Cave in the Levant ochre stains have been identified on one of five perforated shells found in a burial context associated with a thermoluminescence date of 92 000 years BP (Taborin 2003). While there is some controversy over whether these shells are beads, there is no doubt that they were handled by humans (Bar-Yosef Mayer 2005). To date, the oldest unequivocal beads in the world have been recovered from two distinct phases in Middle Stone Age (MSA) deposits at Blombos Cave on the southern Cape shoreline of South Africa (d'Errico et al. 2005). The phase in which this group of 41 perforated estuarine tick shells (Nassarius kraussianus) were found has been dated to about 76 000 years ago by OSL of sediments and thermoluminescence of burnt lithics (Henshilwood et al. 2004). There are other claims of MSA beads and pendants but they have been recovered as isolated finds, such as a bone pendant from Grotte Zouhra in Morocco (Debeneth 1994). Claims for even older beads have recently been made for three modified shells from Es-Skul in Israel and Oued Djebbana in Algeria (Vanhaeren et al. 2006). Other MSA sites with beads such as the Cave of Hearths in South Africa are undated or the context is questionable. The manufacture of ostrich shell beads is widespread in the African LSA (see McBreaty & Brooks 2000: 521-4) particularly after 40 000 years BP (Ambrose 1998: 388). They are present in Enkapune ya Muto, Kenya from about 37-40 000 years (Ambrose 1998) and are of a similar age at Kisese II rock shelter Tanzania.

In the Levant, ornaments including beads and pendants, almost all made of small mollusc shells, are abundant particularly from the Upper Palaeolithic (Bar-Yosef Mayer 2005) and have been dated from about 40 000 years ago at Ksar 'Akil in Lebanon and Ucagizli in Turkey (Kuhn et al. 2001). Beads made of ostrich and estuarine shells have also been reported from an Upper Palaeolithic site in Patne, India (Sali 1989).

In Europe, ornaments are infrequent in Middle Palaeolithic sites and their association with Neanderthals is controversial. Some of the oldest are from Bacho Kiro Cave in Bulgaria, where two pierced animal teeth, dated by radiocarbon to over 43 000 years old, are associated with an early Aurignacian assemblage (Kozlowski 2000). In Western Europe the dating is very controversial but the oldest claim for ivory beads is for 40 000 years BP from the Aurignacian German Swabian Jura sites (Conard & Bolus 2003) although Zilhao and d'Errico (2003 cited in d'Errico et al. 2005) consider 36 000 to be a more plausible date for these. While not found in all Aurignacian sites, bead and pendant ornaments become widespread across Europe after this time.

Materials and manufacturing techniques associated with early beads

Available evidence indicates that mollusc shells were the first materials used to manufacture beads. The oldest beads from Blombos Cave in Africa and from Ksar 'Akil and Ucagizli in the Levant are made of estuarine and marine shell. During the LSA the use of ostrich shell is particularly widespread in bead assemblages. Although European Aurignacian beads are made of a variety of material including bone, ivory and steatite (White 1993) about a third are made of pierced marine, freshwater and fossil shells (Taborin 1993). …