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The World's Oldest Beads

How old do you think are the oldest beads in the world? Keep reading and find out.

Beads in various forms have been worn for thousands of years as ornamentation in ancient cultures; in part as a medium of self-expression, but also as symbols of man's origins, faith and superstitions. But, while various finds have supported this theory, few have been as historically significant as the shell beads uncovered in Morocco in 2007.

Pitted, worn and coated in red clay, the thirteen tiny shells discovered at the Grottes des Pigeons cave in Taforalt, East Morocco, would seem an unremarkable find to most of us. Yet it is this discovery by University of Oxford archeologist, Nick Barton, and his team, which has effectively changed bead history; the find predating even the 75,000 year-old beads found at the Blombos Cave, South Africa, in 1991 by as much as 20,000 years.

Despite the geographical distance between both finds, they have much in common. For starters, the thirteen shell beads uncovered at Taforalt derive from the same genus of marine snail as those found in South Africa - Nassarius. The species is native to Tunisia, suggesting that the beads were made and brought to Morocco for a very specific purpose. Secondly, the beads among both finds feature distinctive perforation holes with obvious signs of wear within, hinting at the likelihood they were strung together and worn as ornamentation – or as symbols of tribal identity. Similar shell beads with inscribed symbols and markings did not surface in Europe until around 40,000 years later.

Previous Findings of Ancient Beads

Ironically, the find in Morocco is not the first to have changed perceptions about man's historic use of beads as ornamentation. In 2006, Barton and his team reported Nassarius shell bead finds at separate excavation sites in Israel and Algeria. After careful assessment of the beads from Israel, the team concluded they had likely been made 100-130,000 years ago, making them the oldest beads in the world at the time.

Barton and his team employed four different techniques to ascertain the age of the Moroccan shell beads – the first time any find had been tested so extensively. As a result, they were able to conclusively prove that they were older than those found in South Africa or Israel – a statement backed by Abdeljalil Bouzouggar from the Moroccan Institute of Archeology.

To date, the Narssarius shell beads found at Taforalt remain the oldest beads known to have been used for adornment. But, there is still a possibility that somewhere out there, another, older hoard of beads is just waiting to be discovered. If that is the case, could it mean that ancient civilizations were far more advanced than we realize too?