What appear to be prehistoric beads have been discovered in South Africa, bolstering a theory that early humans were far more intellectually sophisticated than commonly thought. Archaeologists who discovered the ancient jewelry say the beads represent a form of symbolism associated with modern human cultures.
In a cave in a mountainous region of South Africa, an international team of archaeologists discovered 41 objects they originally thought were tiny teeth. After closer inspection, the scientists concluded the teeth were actually very small beads made out of snail shells, with holes pierced through one side of them.
Archaeologists say the beads, found in Blombos cave, overlooking the Indian Ocean, appear to be around 75,000 years old, some 40,000 years older than similar objects discovered in Europe from the Middle Stone Age, a period that reaches back more than 200,000 years.
Expedition leader Christopher Henshilwood says the discovery suggests humans began to take an important step in their evolution much earlier than previously thought.
Professor Henshilwood - of the University of Norway in Bergen - says the beads represent a collective understanding among a particular group of ancient people that produced the jewelry. He likens the objects to a religous symbol.
"A personal ornament contains a message, and I think of a rosary, for example," he said. "Each bead tells you something. But you have to be a part of that system to understand. If you weren't a Catholic, you may not know what a rosary is or what each individual bead means."
Some critics doubt the 41 objects found in the cave are actually beads, since no pointed rocks were found that likely made the holes. They also say if they are beads, more of them should have been found there and elsewhere.
Archaeologist Curtis Marean is part of an expedition team that uncovered different beads, made of ostrich egg shell, at a site in Tanzania.
Professor Marean says there are a couple of reasons why more beads have not been found: it is tough to work in the tropics as opposed to Europe, where there are more dig sites in France than the entire African continent.
Also, he says it's easy to miss prehistoric beads because they are so tiny.
"The result is every time we do an excavation now in Africa, with improved techniques we seem to be finding something new every time," said Curtis Marean. "And that would indicate to me that we've simply been missing a lot of evidence with these older excavations that were done with less rigor."
An article describing the discovery of the Middle Stone Age beads in South Africa is described in Science.