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Monday, May 11, 2009

How Early Did Humans Think Symbolically?

A few years ago, I wrote a story about shell beads found in South Africa's Blombos Cave. Before they were found, the accepted wisdom was that humans in Europe began making symbolic art and decoration 40,000 years ago, but these beads dated back about 75,000 years. With the discovery, scientists began to reconsider when symbolic thinking began and the "timing of the appearance of one of the behaviors that seems more distinctive of the human species, that of artificially changing the appearance of our body using techniques such as personal ornamentation, tattooing, scarification, body painting," said Francesco d’Errico, a member of the team and a researcher at the National Center for Scientific Research in France.
Now, a group of archaeologists has found a bunch of older shell beads in a limestone cave in eastern Morocco. Shell ornaments were found in 82,000-year-old deposits in the cave a couple years back, and other perforated shells, some also covered with red ochre, have been discovered in even earlier layers. What's striking, the researchers say, is that the same species of shell was used both there and in South Africa, two regions that are far from each other.
Finding the older Moroccan beads is "exciting," says University of Oxford archaeologist Nick Barton, who led the research team, "because they show bead manufacturing probably arose independently in different cultures and confirms a long suspected pattern that humans with modern symbolic behavior were present from a very early stage at both ends of the continent, probably as early as 110,000 years ago.’’
The findings will appear in the journal Quaternary Science Reviews. —Heather Wax