Trying to find out things like how long we humans have been crafting artistic objects, wearing jewellry or using money is a painstaking business for archaeologists.
Beads made 75,000 years ago from a single kind of snail shell and decorated with red ocre were found several years ago in a seaside cave called Blombos in South Africa. More recently, similar shells with similar decorations and unnatural perforations that would have made it possible to string the shells together have been found in northern Africa. They are between 74,000 and 91,000 years old. Similar beads have been found in Algeria and Israel.
Clearly the shells were fashioned into beads by human hands. So it is safe to assume that our artistic output has been going on for at least 100,000 years. But the beads pose two questions that have yet to be answered.
- Were they used for jewellry, or were they a form of currency used for trading?
- And perhaps even more intrigueing, how did it happen that the same species of snail decorated in essentially the same way appears over such a huge distance? It seems highly improbable that the similarities are sheer coincidence. But on the other hand, it is hard to imagine that a trading system spread over such a relatively large space was taking place 75,000 years ago.
So why was everybody decorating the same species of snail shells in the same way?