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Beads' Role in Human Development

The oldest beads known thus far, nassarius shells from Üçagizli (Ucagizli) Cave, Turkey.

Yes, I stole this picture from
The photo was taken by H. Stiner. Hope no one minds.

It is not just a question of who has found the oldest beads, whether they be in West Asia or Africa or elsewhere.Archaeologists are beginning to realize what a profound invention they were and are now actively discussing their meaning.

Their role as social markers has recently garnered attention. Now the earliest appearance of beads coinciding with radical changes in hunting habits is lending weight to a "new view" of human development.

Nearly contemporary early beads have now been found in Turkey, Kenya, Lebanon, and Bulgaria.

Mary Stiner, of the University of Arizona, told the American Association for the Advancement of Science's annual meeting that these finds, coupled with her work with Steven Kuhn in early sites around the Mediterranean reveal a change in hunting practices by early humans some 40,000 to 50,000. Similar changes are seen in Africa.

At this time, there was a major change in hunting habits from slow, easy-to-catch animals like tortoises and shellfish to swifter, more elusive animals like rabbits and partridges. Why? Stiner says: If you have over-used your preferred resource, you can respond by turning to lower-ranked, harder-to-catch resources.

Human population increase may well also be the reason for the appearance of the first beads. As she explained, Ornamentation is universal among all modern human foragers. For these people, ornaments as principally used to denote status and group membership.

Because these changes were made at about the same time in widely dispersed places, the evidence mounts that modern human behavior arose almost simultaneously in several places. This is the "continuity" theory of modern human development, occurring in parallel among populations on three continents.

It contrasts with the "out of Africa" theory that suggests that modern humans emerged from Africa at this time, sweeping less advanced indigenous populations before them. [The idea that all humans had their ultimate origin in Africa is not in dispute here.]

The fact that both behavioral changes (hunting, beadmaking) happened long after the appearance of anatomically modern humans is also significant. As Stiner put it: it [is] clear that modern human behavior doesn't appear at the same time that skeletally modern humans do.


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