Anthropologists say humans have used personal adornments to communicate about themselves without the sound of conversation – for millennia.
Shell pearls recovered from a cave in western Morocco, estimated to be between 142,000 and 150,000 years old, suggest that this behavior could date back much further than previously thought. The discovery, detailed Wednesday in the journal Science Advances, was made by a team of archaeologists that includes Steven L. Kuhn, professor of anthropology at the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Arizona.
Pearls, according to Kuhn and colleagues, are the first known evidence of a widespread form of nonverbal human communication, and they shed new light on the evolution of human cognitive abilities and social interactions.
âThey were probably part of the way people expressed their identity with their clothes,â Kuhn said. âThey are the tip of the iceberg for this kind of human trait. They show that it was present even hundreds of thousands of years ago, and that humans were interested in communicating with larger groups of people than their immediate friends and family.
How does this ancient form of communication look today? This happens often, Kuhn said.
âYou think about the way society works – someone is hugging you in traffic, honking their horns and flashing their lights, and you wonder, ‘What’s your problem? “, Said Kuhn. “But if you see that they are wearing a blue uniform and a peaked cap, you realize that a policeman is arresting you.”
Kuhn and an international team of archaeologists recovered the 33 pearls between 2014 and 2018 near the mouth of the Bizmoune cave, about 16 km inland from Essaouira, a town on the Atlantic coast of Morocco. .
Kuhn co-directs archaeological research at the Bizmoune cave with Abdeljalil Bouzouggar, professor at the National Institute of Archaeological Sciences and Heritage in Rabat, Morocco, and Philippe Fernandez, from Aix-Marseille University in France, who are also authors of the study. El Mehdi Sehasseh, a graduate student of the National Institute of Archaeological and Heritage Sciences, who conducted the detailed pearl study, is the lead author of the study.
The pearls discovered by Kuhn and his collaborators were made from sea snail shells, and each is about half an inch long. Holes in the center of the beads, along with other signs of wear, indicate they were hung from strings or clothing, Kuhn said.
The pearls are like many others found at sites across North and Southern Africa, but previous examples do not date back more than 130,000 years. The ancient pearls of North Africa are associated with the Aterian, a Middle Stone Age culture known for its distinctive rod spearheads, whose inhabitants hunted gazelles, wildebeest, warthogs and rhinos, among other animals.
The pearls serve as potential clues for anthropologists studying the evolution of human cognition and communication. Researchers have long been interested in the appearance of language. But there was no material trace of language until a few thousand years ago, when humans started to write things.
Pearls, Kuhn said, are essentially a fossilized form of basic communication.
âWe don’t know what they meant, but these are clearly symbolic items that were deployed in a way that other people could see,â he said.
Pearls are also notable for their durable shape. Rather than painting their bodies or faces with ocher or charcoal, as many people did, the beadmakers made something more permanent, Kuhn said, suggesting that the message they intended to pass on was lasting and important.
In many ways, pearls raise more questions than they answer. Kuhn said he and his colleagues now wished to know why the Aterians felt the need to craft the beads when they did. They explore several possible explanations. One, Kuhn said, concerns a growing population; As more and more people began to occupy North Africa, they may have needed ways to identify themselves.
It is also possible that people in North Africa began to use the method of communication at a time when the climate was cold and dry. They may have developed clans or other allegiances to protect limited resources, and then may have used the beads to express their ethnicity or other identity to show they belonged to a certain region, Kuhn said. .
âIt’s one thing to know that people were able to make them,â Kuhn said, âbut then the question becomes, ‘OK, what made them do it? “”
Header image credit: A. Bouzuggar, INSAP, Morocco