Earrings aren’t just fashionable. They’re also a form of communication.

Something as simple as earrings can serve as a means of communication just by themselves. As it turns out, humans have been using this type of non-verbal communication for millennia, with researchers recently recovering shell beads that were used for earrings 150,000 years ago.  

The researchers working at the cave. Image credit: The researchers

The beads are the earliest known evidence of widespread non-verbal communication, according to the group of anthropologists who made the discovery. In their study, they argue that this brings new valuable information on the evolution of human cognitive abilities and interactions. 

“You think about how society works—somebody’s tailgating you in traffic, honking their horn and flashing their lights, and you think, ‘What’s your problem?'” Steven Kuhn, lead author of the study, said in a statement. “But if you see they’re wearing a blue uniform and a peaked cap, you realize it’s a police officer pulling you over.”

Kuhn and the group of researchers recovered 33 marine shell beads between 2014 and 2018 from Bizmoune Cave, located about 10 miles from the Atlantic coast of southwest Morocco. The cave, formed in Upper Cretaceous limestone, was discovered during a survey of the area in 2004 and was then subject to archaeological excavations — including the excavations .

The beads were made from sea snails shells belonging to the species Tritia Gibbosula, each measuring half an inch long. They feature an oval-shaped or circular perforation, indicating they were hung on strings or from clothing. There are also traces of human modification such as chipping, possibly using a stone tool, the researchers found.

“They were probably part of the way people expressed their identity with their clothing,” Kuhn said. “They’re the tip of the iceberg for that kind of human trait. They show that it was present even hundreds of thousands of years ago, and that humans were interested in communicating to bigger groups of people than their immediate friends and family.”

Looking into the beads

While is far from the first time researchers have found symbolic artifacts such as beads, previous examples date back to no older than 130,000 years. Some of the earliest examples are associated with the Aterian industry, a Middle Stone Age culture known for its advanced tools such as spear points, used to hunt diverse wild animals. 

For anthropologists as Kuhn, the beads are a way to advance our understanding of the evolution of human cognition and communication. They are a fossilized form of basic communication, Kuhn said. While they don’t know exactly what they meant, they are symbolic objects deployed in a way for other people to see them, Kuhn explained. 

The researchers agree that their findings, while significant, also leave a lot of open questions. They will know to explore further the role of the Aterian industry and why they had the need to make the beads when they did. A possibility is that they wanted to identify themselves as more people started expanding into the North of Africa. 

Using a certain bead might have meant that you belonged to a certain clan, created as a way to protect limited resources due to population expansion. Still, as Kuhn explains, it’s one thing to know that they were capable of making them, and another to understand what actually stimulated them to do it. A chapter for another day. 

The study was published in the journal Science Advances. 

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