Ancient Bling: The Earliest Jewelry

Before man learnt to communicate through words and written forms, he created beautiful pieces of adornment. Jewelry made from shells and bones were one of the first kinds of adornment discovered so far. In the site of the Skhul cave in Israel, archaeologists have found beads made from shells of a sea snail called Nassarius (Figure 1). They may not be much to look at compared to our modern bling, but they are a first in many ways. For starters, these beads date to around 110,000 years ago, which makes them the earliest known jewelry made by modern humans. Moreover, since jewelry is symbolic, they are a tangible record of our first stab at symbolic thinking, a skill unique to our species.

Skhul Shell Beads, Skhul, Israel. Scale bar is 1 centimeter.

110,000 years ago is pretty early in the timeline of modern human evolution. The fossil record indicates that by that time, Home Sapiens have long migrated out of Africa into Europe and Asia (this migration is believed to have started as early as 250,000 year ago. See note [1]. As our ancestors moved, so did their jewelry practice, as shown by similar beadwork found across Africa. The oldest ones there (about 80,000 years old) were found in Morocco. Just a bit younger were beads found in a cave on the Cape shoreline in South Africa which date to around 75,000 BC (Figure 2).

In the Blombos Cave on the southern tip of South Africa, archaeologists have found over 40 pea-sized shells, each punched with holes and showing worn areas indicating that they had been strung on a necklace, bracelet, or clothes.

Future discoveries may yet push back the dates of the earliest jewelry given the yawning gap of at least 100,000 years between the fossil record of the first modern humans in Africa and the oldest jewelry uncovered so far. The hunt continues.

[1] See

Leave a Reply