Ancient perforated shells ‘show evidence of one of the earliest use of strings’

Humans living around 120,000 years ago collected shells with holes in them and strung them together as beads, scientists have discovered.

The findings, published in the journal Plos One, are based on an analysis of naturally perforated shells unearthed at the Qafzeh Cave in Israel, a prehistoric archaeological site that contains many skeletons of humans who lived there during the Mediterranean Paleolithic period.

Ancient shells are thought to be some of the earliest adornments used by humans, with evidence of use found across North Africa, South Africa, and the Eastern Mediterranean dating as far back as 160,000 years ago.

The researchers say the Qafzeh Cave shells also show evidence of one of the earliest instances of strings being used to hang objects, which could help shed light on the origins of string-making technology.

Lead author Daniella Bar-Yosef Mayer, of Tel Aviv University in Israel, 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 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

The researchers collected the same species perforated clamshells (Glycymeris) that were found in the Qafzeh Cave.

The team then simulated the wear-and-tear seen on the original shells by abrading the items against different materials like leather, sand, and stone.

The items were hung on strings made from wild flax to identify wear patterns specific to string suspension.

The researchers then compared these patterns to those of the original Qafzeh Cave shells.

Microscopic analysis of the five best-preserved Qafzeh Cave shells revealed evidence of wear-and-tear associated with shell-to-shell contact, which according to the researchers, suggest the shells hung closely together on a string.

The scientists also found tour of these shells were painted with ochre, a natural clay pigment.

However, they say it is not possible to determine the precise symbolic meaning of the Qafzeh Cave shells.

But the researchers add the presence of a string suggests the ability to display the shells using a string may have held significance.

The team wrote: “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.”

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