An international team from the National Institute of Archaeological and Heritage Sciences (INSAP) under the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports (Department of Culture), University of Arizona (Tucson, USA) and the Mediterranean Laboratory of Prehistory Europe Africa (CNRS, LAMPEA, Aix-en-Provence, France) have just announced the discovery of 32 shells shaped from marine gastropods in a level dating from 142,000 to 150,000 years ago in the cave of Bizmoune in Essaouira.
These artifacts made from the shells of Tritia gibbosula (formerly Nassarius gibbosulus) constitute the oldest pieces of adornment discovered to date, reads a statement published on the website of the Ministry of Culture, specifying that the study is published in the journal “Science Advances”.
“The use of these marine shells, probably as a pendant, testifies to a very ancient symbolic behavior in our species, Homo sapiens”, underlines the same source, explaining that the first discoveries were made in sites in the Levant dating from around 135,000 years ago as well as in South Africa around 76,000 years ago.
And to continue that “other sites in North Africa with the same species of marine gastropods have been dated between 116,000 and 35,000 years. Thanks to cross-dating at high resolutions (uranium-thorium imbalance) the discoveries of Bizmoune age the first evidence of this symbolic behavior during a cold and arid geological period of the Pleistocene (Marine Isotopic Stage 6) ”.
“Like our contemporaries, the ancient human groups probably used shell pearls to decorate their bodies and their clothes”, notes the document, explaining that “in Bizmoune, many shells show traces of wear and polish related to the suspension, and some of them were even colored with red ocher, a natural iron oxide pigment found in microscopic residues on these shells ”.
These elements of adornment are sometimes interpreted as the expression of the social and cultural identity of the wearers, indicates the press release, letting it be known that this discovery “is the first direct material proof of a system of exchange and / or intra communication. and human intergroups. Its origin is extremely old in Bizmoune with the use of Tritia gibbosula ”.
Microscopic observations were carried out on the shells to specify the nature of their modification and according to El Mehdi Sehasseh, co-author of the publication and doctoral student at INSAP, quoted in the press release, “the analysis of the shells showed that they were worn by humans ”.
In Bizmoune, these sea shells seem at first glance small and insignificant, but according to one of the main authors, Abdeljalil Bouzouggar of INSAP-Maroc, “these tiny seashells provide crucial information on the origin of symbolic behavior such as language” .
These elements of Bizmoune adornment and those found in other North African sites are associated with the Middle Stone Age (MSA) Atterian culture known for its famous stalked aterial spikes, he noted, noting that ‘in Bizmoune, the Aterians exploited a wide variety of animals including equines, gazelles, warthogs, wildebeest, large antelopes or other large bovids and even rhinos.
For his part, Philippe Fernandez (LAMPEA), one of the main authors of the article, explains that “this association of fossil animals found in Bizmoune testifies to a very arid character with passageways between the center-west Morocco and sub-Saharan Africa and corridors that have now disappeared ”.
“This indicates that the Sahara has never been a barrier to such exchanges”, according to Mohammed Mouhiddine, of the University Hassan II Casablanca-Mohammedia and co-author of the study.
The occupants of the site ate plants, other small animals (eg hare, turtle) and fragments of ostrich eggs which are also present, it is explained, adding that in much of the sequence of fragments of charcoal come from taxa such as argan, thuja and / or juniper, still present in the region today.
The chronology of the Bizmoune cave in Essaouira has been specified by different techniques, observes the same source.
For Moncef Benmansour of the National Energy Center for Nuclear Sciences and Techniques and co-author of the study, “The Uranium / Thorium technique is very useful and reliable for dating archaeological sites”.
These paleoenvironmental data are crucial for Steven Kuhn of the University of Arizona, one of the lead authors of the study: “To understand the origins of this behavior, we must take a close look at the ecological and demographic factors of the human groups for which the ‘affirmation of one’s own belonging or identity was probably very important’.
Research at the Bizmoune cave is co-directed by Abdeljalil Bouzouggar, professor at the National Institute of Archaeological Sciences and Heritage (INSAP) (Rabat, Morocco), Steven Kuhn, professor at the University of Arizona (Tucson, USA) and Philippe Fernandez, researcher at the Mediterranean Laboratory of Prehistory Europe Africa (CNRS, Aix-en-Provence, France).
Various researchers from several institutions are also associated with this research with, in Morocco, the Hassan II University Casablanca-Mohammedia, the National Center for Energy, Nuclear Sciences and Techniques (CNESTEN); in the United States, Department of Anthropology, Harvard University (USA); in Germany the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig and the University of Tübingen; in Spain the University of Las Palmas and in England the University of Sheffield.