Wednesday, May 07, 2008

New pierced shells from Grotte des Pigeons


It appears, that they have found yet more pierced Nassarius gibbosulus shells in Grotte des Pigeons (near Taforalt, Morocco) during excavation conducted in March and April 2008. That would be 20 more shells, to be precise, which may be as old as 85,000 years BP, or slightly older than the ones Bouzouggar et al. (2007) published last year.


From the news report:

In 2007, Bouzouggar and Barton discovered 14 perforated shells in the same cave.

"This discovery shows that the making and use of objects of finery is very anchored in the traditions of Morocco's prehistoric people," said Bouzouggar, in whose opinion the country is the original centre of artistic and symbolic creation.

Objects of finery discovered in Morocco are "now considered to be even more ancient than those discovered in Algeria, South Africa and in Palestine", said the culture ministry.

Well, I don't know that these new finds do anything to establish that the practice of piercing and wearing shells is older in Morocco than it is at Skhul (ca. 100-135kya), but we can't say without seeing more information on the finds. From what I gather from a press release by the Moroccan Ministry of Culture (in French), this claim may be based on an assessment that the two shells from Skuhl cave (which I talked about here) "are difficult to date due to uncertainties about the context in which they were found," in part because they were recovered so long ago, in the 1930's. If you buy this, then the earliest shell beads would, in fact, be from Morocco.

The burials of five children dated to at least 12kya were also apparently found during the same field season. The children's remains were covered in ochre, buried under stone blocks with animal bones. Can't wait to hear more about these finds!


Maju said...

Does that mean that H. Sapiens presence in North Africa (Aterian, of arguably West Asian derivation) actually pre-dates the usual dates managed for the out-of-Africa event (c.75-60 KYBP)?

Julien Riel-Salvatore said...

I wouldn't necessarily say that, since we have anatomically modern Homo sapiens outside of Africa by at least 100kya at Skhul and Qafzeh, if the dates from the Levant are taken at face value. While the excavations at Skhul were conducted in the 1930's, the dates themselves were obtained in the late 80's, using modern protocols. So, in terms of dates at least, I wouldn't necessarily accept the idea that the Taforalt dates are de facto the ones clearly associated with intentionally modified shells. On the other hand, as I mentioned in a prior post, two shells is not a lot, and would have made for a rather unimpressive (and discreet!) ornament. Arguably, more shells might have been present in the original deposits at Skhul and not recovered in the coarser excavations of the 1930's, but we can't establish this on the basis of current evidence. So, in a nutshell, it would seem that the Moroccan evidence is the earliest evidence for relatively systematic use of pierced shells, and this certainly appears to predate 75 kya. Whether you accept that last date as corresponding to the beginning of an emigration of H. sapiens populations out of Africa is another issue.

Maju said...

But it seems clearly related with Aterian culture, right? And Aterian seems the only culture of North African Upper Paleolithic (i.e. before Epipaleolithic Oranian and Capsian). I'm drawing my (provisional) conclussions on this logic, not just on the use of symbolism, what could be in theory the work of any other hominin.

In the case of Skuhl and related Levantine findings, it has been argued that they never made it really far, as they were replaced by Neanderthals at later dates, that they represent an early but failed attempt of colonization. But, AFAIK, that cannot be said of North African "Aterians". Please, correct me if I'm wrong.

Julien Riel-Salvatore said...

At 85-90kya, I'd hesitate greatly to use the label 'Upper Paleolithic' to refer to the Aterian - traditionally, it's been considered a Middle Paleolithic or Middle Stone Age industry. Part of the issue with the Aterian is that, until comparatively recently, we didn't have very good dates for it. Now that we do have dates, however, they mainly seem to date to its early or middle stages, so that we don't actually know until when it lasted or whether it was present across North Africa until northern Africa until the Epipalelithic. The evidence from Lybia (e.g., the Haua Fteah) certainly suggests that the beginning of the EUP in North Africa was at least polymorphic, and possibly unrelated to the Aterian. I know for a fact that some research concerning this will be coming out soon, but until this is available, we don't really have a clear picture of the EUP in that region.

Maju said...

Thanks for your information, Julien. I was under the impression that North African UP (or MP with sapiens, if you wish) was largely all Aterian but, I've been reading some stuff between the previous comment and now and I realize it is not the case. That Aterian people might even have gone extinct eventually.

I am also realizing that Oranian is older than I thought. Guess I need more good reads. And certainly I'll be watchng for that new research you announce. :)

Chuck Pell said...

I don't doubt that the shells were intentionally pierced, the only question is by whom: human, or a predator of gastropods. I have no issue with the idea that humans collected the shells, whether for stringing or other activities, and it takes nothing away from the finds if they were predator cast-offs picked up for symbolic use. Note that on many beaches around the world that are covered with shells, most are predator-pierced (more than not). Many predators of gastropods drill their victims' shells, so what looks like drilling by a tool may in fact be non-anthropogenic. To definitively ascertain the identity of the piercer, I highly recommend that specimens be physically examined by Geerat Vermeij at UC Davis, in California. He is by far the most knowledgeable person alive when it comes to identifying the morphologies, pathologies, exact localities and circumstances of their demise. He is excellent at determining which predator is responsible, based on the drill hole morphology. His faculty page is at:


Anonymous said...

Good point.

Maju said...

Not so good. Predators make holes in certain ways (typically irregular and at the weakest spot) while humans look for the best spot to pass a string through and try to make them as regular and pretty as possible. They can be differentiated.

Also there's no particular reason for people to gather so many already predated and damaged shells: not for food and not for ornament.

So not such a good point.