History of Beads: A Brief Peek into Prehistory

History of Beads: A Brief Peek into Prehistory

Beads: A Brief Peek into Prehistory

Beads have been an integral part of human adornment since the dawn of time and can tell us a myriad of stories about our beliefs, practices, and movements across the globe. Aside from being a simple object, beads have held a variety of functional roles in a contemporary and prehistoric context. It seems, indeed, that beads could be one of the earliest forms of 3-dimensional art used to communicate stories, and we mean this in the broadest sense. That’s the beauty of what beads have to offer us: they have held so many meanings across nearly every culture on earth. From the earliest record of beads being used as personal adornment, it’s clear that it’s in our nature to adorn our bodies with beautiful objects and use them to tell our stories.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

In the prehistoric record, there is some dispute about what constitutes the first “bead”, and what stories the first beads tell us about early humans. In 1991, during archaeological excavations of Blombos Cave, about 300km east of Cape Town, South Africa, some of the first beads were unearthed, carved from marine shells. The archaeological material and fauna remains of the Blombos Cave site date to the Middle Stone Age phase, dated to 100,000-70,000 BP (Before Present). This discovery yielded critical new information about the behavioral evolution of anatomically modern humans (AMH), mainly the development and adoption of multi-step tool technology, composite tools, and most importantly in the case of beads, elaboration in stylistic forms of personal adornment. Despite the beads clearly being intentionally pierced by a human-made tool and the variety of evidence to suggest that beads were systematically modified, there are disputes in the archaeological community about the usage of the beads and how they came to be punctured in such a way. Some even doubt that they are beads at all.


Location of Blombos Cave. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Marine shell beads. Image: Marian Vanhaeren & Christopher S. Henshilwood


This discovery was the earliest in the archaeological record that appeared to demonstrate the use of beads being used as personal adornment. In Blombos Cave, more than 70 marine shell beads of a specific sea snail species were found to have been deliberately pierced or drilled through the shell, likely with a bone tool. With the combination of contextual, morphometric, technological, and use-wear analyses, these beads were shown to have been strung on sinew or a cord of some type. 

The excavations at Blombos Cave. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Within the cave, shell beads were found in various levels and squares within the site, meaning there were various deposits of the remains found throughout the site that suggest that beads were manufactured by individuals on a small scale. Discrete groups of beads showing wear patterns and coloring specific to the areas in which they were found suggest that a number of individuals may have worn and made beads, wearing them on themselves or perhaps attached to clothing or worn accessories.

In the realm of anthropology, this discovery was immensely exciting. It may seem straightforward that yes, beads were worn at the site and they seem different depending on where in the site they were found. However, this facet of the discovery tells us volumes about social conventions and symbolic material culture over time--that is, individuals were able to comprehend and self-recognize the wearing of personal adornment, and even use specific language essential for sharing the personal meanings of symbolic adornment. The discovery of the beads provided key information in the record of cognitive evolution and signaled the conscious decision to make decorative objects for personal wear.

Another key discovery in the earliest examples of beads is during the period where anatomically modern humans (AMH) were beginning to displace the Neanderthal species (Homo neanderthalensis) with the advent of more complex tool-making industries and increased complex cognitive abilities. In the Grotte du Renne cave in Arcy-sur-Cure, an area 200 kilometers southeast of Paris, bead artifacts and bone remains were found dating to 35,000 to 40,000 BP and appear to be produced by Neanderthals. During this period, a mass migration of AMH were sweeping across Europe, with the Grotte du Renne site being a critical marker of discussions (and subsequent disagreements) regarding the nature of the interactions between the two distinct human species. 

Grotte du Renne cave entrance. Image: Wikimedia Commons.


The beads and ornamental artifacts found at the Grotte du Renne cave include the remains of personal ornaments, rings, pierced animal teeth, and ivory pendants that were excavated from particular levels at this site. The presence of notches in animal bones and intentional perforations in bone and tooth materials tells us that Neanderthals were very likely capable of creating items for personal adornment. 

Artifacts found at Grotte du Renne site. Image credit: M. Vanhaeren


Interestingly enough, many of the examples found at this site appear to be Neanderthals mimicking the adornments of AMH who very likely already had the behavioral and linguistic capacity to make such trinkets and symbols of personal expression. The Neanderthal mimicry of these technologies also tells us volumes about how acculturation takes place, or how practices and traditions are adopted over periods of time. Many scholars previously doubted the cognitive capacity of Neanderthals to create forms of personal expression, and it remains contested whether evolutionary development or simply watching and learning from the more cognitively advanced modern humans is more of an influence. 

Anatomical differences in AMH and Neanderthals. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Over the course of tens of thousands of years, humans made leaps and bounds in creating more elaborate and advanced forms of personal adornments, resulting in a vast array of artistic mediums we see today, beads included. So, what is the importance of prehistory when we consider beads as a medium? What does it tell us about the nature of human interaction and human developments over time? How does this information play out in a contemporary context? 

The two earliest examples, Blombos cave, and the Grotte du Renne cave mark the beginnings of our ancestral fascination with adorning ourselves with beautiful objects. They mark the beginnings of creating forms of wearable personal expression, and they help us understand on the simplest level how we as humans conceptualize, create, and share our creations with others. As time goes on, we see an elaboration of new technologies, new forms of personal expression, and unique distinctions across cultures. In future blogs, we’ll cover these histories chronologically, up to the present. In the meantime, we hope you’ve enjoyed reading some history, and that you’ve learned something new today.

Molly Garson, Associate Director



Henshilwood, Christopher S., et al. (2001a) An early bone tool industry from the Middle Stone Age at Blombos Cave, South Africa: implications for the origins of modern human behaviour, symbolism and language. Journal of Human Evolution, 41, 631–78.

Higham, T., et al. “Chronology of the Grotte Du Renne (France) and Implications for the Context of Ornaments and Human Remains within the Chatelperronian.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 107, no. 47, 2010, pp. 20234–20239., doi:10.1073/pnas.1007963107.

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