Human ancestors paid mind to fashion

Michael Balter / ScienceNOW /

Published Mar 14, 2013 at 05:00AM

The 2013 Academy Awards were, as always, as much about making appearances as about making films, as red carpet watchers noted fashion trends and faux pas. Of course, no actress would be caught dead wearing the same style two years in a row. A new study of ancient beaded jewelry from a South African cave finds that ancient humans were no different, avoiding outdated styles as early as 75,000 years ago.

Personal ornaments, often in the form of beads worn as necklaces or bracelets, are considered by archaeologists as a key sign of sophisticated symbolic behavior, communicating either membership in a group or individual identity. Such ornaments are ubiquitous in so-called Upper Paleolithic sites in Europe beginning about 40,000 years ago, where they were made from many different materials — animal and human teeth, bone and ivory, stone, and mollusk shells — and often varied widely among regions and sites.

Even more ancient personal ornaments go back to at least 100,000 years ago in Africa and the Near East. But this earlier jewelry seems less variable and was nearly always made from mollusk shells.

In a new study in the Journal of Human Evolution, a team led by archaeologist Marian Vanhaeren of the University of Bordeaux in France claims to have found evidence of a relatively sudden shift in the way that shell beads were strung. The beads were found at Blombos Cave in South Africa in archaeological layers dated between 75,000 and 72,000 years ago, during a time period marked by four distinct layers of artifacts called the Still Bay tradition.

“In the lower (older) layers, the shells hang free on a string with their flat, shiny (sides) against each other,” Vanhaeren says. But like all fashions, that one didn’t last long: In the two upper, younger layers, “the shells are knotted together two by two, with their shiny side up.”