The earliest ornaments ever found from the South-East Asian region have been excavated at the eastern tip of Timor, filling a puzzling gap in the record and bridging a cultural gap at the same time in other parts of the world.
Humans have been using shells as ornamental beads for at least 80,000 years. They have formed an important part of our cultural development, indicating status and becoming an item of trade and possibly an early form of currency. Although examples are common in Africa, Europe, and Australia, they have been almost entirely missing in Ice Age finds in South-East Asia.
This absence contributed to the theory that on the journey east from Africa, humans somehow left behind certain technologies and cultural complexities. Yet, the fact that some of these supposedly “lost” cultural features are seen in Australia 30,000 years ago made their absence even harder to explain.
However, excavations at four sites in Timor Leste have turned up an abundance of shell beads – 485 so far. The oldest of these is 37,000 years old. The beads have been reported in detail in PLOS One.
Close-ups of the shells, showing the cut-off ends to allow threading, and some of the ways the shells were worn down. Langley and Connor/PLOS One
First author Dr Michelle Langley of the Australian National University said in a statement that ochre pigment traces on some of the shells provide evidence of how they were used. “Either [the people who wore them] were painting their bodies and the ochre was getting accidentally rubbed onto the beads, or they were painting their clothing and the beads rubbed against that."
"Most of them are very worn, suggesting that they were used for a long time before they were lost or thrown away,” Langley added.
The failure to find such evidence previously may have reflected impatience on the part of archaeologists. “These shells are only 4-5 millimeters (0.2 inches) wide,” Langley told IFLScience. Many archeologists searching sites in the region have used sieves with holes wide enough that the shells may have fallen straight through. The Timor digs, on the other hand, were done with great care, with soil from dig sites sifted through very fine sieves.
From 8,000 to 4,000 years ago, beads become more frequent at the sites and show signs of more intensive wearing. “We’re still thinking about why this was,” Langley told IFLScience. “Coastal environmental changes at the time may have led to economic reorganization. Shell beads might have become a more important way to mark identity.”
The same Timorese sites also produced a 42,000-year-old fishhook, the oldest ever recorded, accompanied by the earliest signs that Timor’s inhabitants at the time were fishing in the open ocean, rather than in waters sheltered by reefs. Langley said the finds accompanied the recent discovery of rock art in Sulawesi, another cultural legacy thought to have been absent in South-East Asia during the Pleistocene era.
Timor and the sites at which the shell beads were found. Langley and Connor/PLOS ONE