MODERN human behaviour such as body adornment, figurative thought and probably complex language began at least 25,000 years earlier than was previously believed, according to an analysis of shell beads kept in museum collections since the early 20th century.
The perforated shells from 100,000 years ago, held by the Natural History Museum in London and the Musée de l’Homme in Paris, have been identified as the earliest known example of jewellery. The discovery shows that the early humans who made the beads, which were probably strung as necklaces, were capable of sophisticated behaviour that we recognise in people today.

Making and wearing beads requires an ability to understand symbols and a concept of beauty, both of which are considered hallmarks of the modern human brain. It is also probable that the ancient jewellers spoke a form of language, scientists said, and as some of the shells were found hundreds of miles from the coast, they may even have been trading with one another.

The findings push back the confirmed origins of modern thought by at least 25,000 years — the previous oldest example of jewellery, from Blombos Cave in South Africa, dates from 75,000 years ago. The Blombos discovery, reported in 2004, showed that early Homo sapiens was behaving in modern ways much earlier than the previously accepted date of about 40,000 years ago.

The shells, which were unearthed in the 1930s at Skhul in Israel and at Oued Djebbana in Algeria, have now been dated to at least 100,000 years ago, in a study published today in the journal Science.

Detailed examinations have also confirmed that they were perforated deliberately for use as beads. Together with the Blombos evidence, the new research means that the history of human mental development must be rewritten. While Homo sapiens became anatomically modern between 200,000 and 160,000 year ago, it was assumed that the characteristic features of the modern mind emerged much later, between 50,000 and 40,000 years ago.

Evidence from those years pointed to a “creative explosion” in Europe, Asia and Africa in which cave painting, body adornment and bone tools became commonplace as humans acquired the ability to think in abstract ways. It now appears certain that that capacity emerged much earlier. As evidence now exists from three sites, two at either end of Africa and one in the Middle East, it is likely that none of these is the first place where human creativity began.

“These sites are only going to be part of the story,” said Chris Stringer, of the Natural History Museum. “Humans were all over Africa and the Middle East by 100,000 years ago, and modern behaviour is turning up all over that range. This must go even further back, though we don’t know how much further back or to what place.”

The shells from both new sites belong to the species Nassarius gibbosulus, a scavenging sea snail. The Blombos shells are from a related species, Nassarius kraussianus. Their similarity suggests a cultural tradition with a common origin elsewhere, Professor Stringer said.

The Algerian site is 125 miles (200km) from the coast, indicating that the shells were sufficiently valued for people to have carried them long distances, or to have traded for them. Professor Stringer said: “If people were using beads, they were using them to convey a message about themselves, I believe that implies there was language, which does much the same thing.”

Marian Vanhaeren, of University College London, who led the study, said: “We think that the African evidence may point to the beads being used in gift-giving systems which function to strengthen social and economic relationships. The European evidence suggests the beads were used as markers of ethnic, social and personal identity.”