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A report in the journal Science this past June noted the discovery of Middle Paleolithic shell beads in collections made during excavation of sites in Israel and Algeria many decades ago. The evidence, combined with recent finds from South Africa of 75,000-year-old shell beads, is the earliest indication of "cultural modernity" among anatomically modern humans--with an origin in Africa of about 200,000 years ago. Before now, the earliest evidence for cultural modernity was from Europe and dated to around 40,000 years ago. ARCHAEOLOGY spoke with Marian Vanhaeren of the French Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique and a co-author of the Science report about this discovery.
But I think that beads may even offer more. They play different functions in different societies (e.g. they may be used to beautify the body, function as "love letters" in courtship, or as amulets, exchange media, expressions of individual and group identity, markers of age, class, gender, wealth, or social status). It may well be that the identification of these functions and the way they evolved to address specific needs is what is relevant for the debate on the emergence of cultural modernity more then the fact of finding or not beads. In other words when the time of the discovery will be over and a clear pattern appears we will need to refine our questions and find the real answers. I feel that they will have more to do with social processes than to human evolution.