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J Hum Evol. 2005 Jan;48(1):3-24. Epub 2004 Dec 21.

Nassarius kraussianus shell beads from Blombos Cave: evidence for symbolic behaviour in the Middle Stone Age.

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  • 1CNRS UMR 5199 PACEA, Institut de Préhistoire et de Géologie du Quaternaire, Avenue des Facultés, F-33405 Talence cedex, France.


Since 1991, excavations at Blombos Cave have yielded a well-preserved sample of faunal and cultural material in Middle Stone Age (MSA) levels. The uppermost MSA phase, M1, is dated to c. 75 ka by optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) and thermoluminescence, and the middle M2 phase to a provisional c. 78 ka. Artefacts unusual in a MSA context from these phases include bifacial points, bone tools, engraved ochre and engraved bone. In this paper, we describe forty-one marine tick shell beads recovered from these MSA phases and tick shell beads from Later Stone Age (LSA) levels at Blombos Cave and the Die Kelders site. Thirty-nine shell beads come from the upper M1 phase and two from M2. Morphometric, taphonomic and microscopic analysis of modern assemblages of living and dead tick shell demonstrate that the presence of perforated Nassarius kraussianus shells in the Blombos MSA levels cannot be due to natural processes or accidental transport by humans. The types of perforation seen on the MSA shells are absent on modern accumulations of dead shells and not attributable to post-depositional damage. Their location, size, and microscopic features are similar to those obtained experimentally by piercing the shell wall, through the aperture, with a sharp bone point. Use-wear, recorded on the perforation edge, the outer lip, and the parietal wall of the aperture indicates the shells having being strung and worn. MSA shell beads differ significantly in size, perforation type, wear pattern and shade compared to LSA beads and this eliminates the possibility of mixing across respective levels. Thirty-one beads were found in four groups of five to twelve beads, each group being recovered in a single square or in two adjacent sub-squares during a single excavation day. Within a group, shells display a similar shade, use-wear pattern and perforation size suggesting their provenance from the same beadwork item, lost or disposed during a single event. The likely symbolic significance of these finds suggests levels of cognitively modern behaviour not previously associated with MSA people.

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