Fit for purpose: shells as tools in early Homo sapiens history
Unlike stone cobbles and fragments which required some degree of shaping to be functional tools, the variety of edges, shapes and textures found in molluscan shells meant that they could be used with little to no modification. The key appears to have been in selecting the right sort of shell for the required purpose. Recent research in Asia and Africa reveals that the use of particular shell species and types by early Homo sapiens is highly patterned. Very specific types of shells are being selected as tools or raw material for tools, and these species do not necessarily coincide with those being selected for consumption. In some instances, they derive from entirely different coastal habitats. Exactly how common the use of unmodified shells as tools is in early human history is unclear, as our methods for recognising these objects has been limited and under-developed. If we are to gain a true appreciation of the role and relative importance of shells as tools in the distant past, we must work towards enhancing our analytical techniques. I shall discuss various new directions that are allowing us to distinguish shell tools from the shell midden deposits in which they are often found.
Keywords: shell tools, shell artefacts, early modern humans, Southeast Asia, North Africa.
Figure: Tools made from the opercula of Turbo marmoratus shells from Golo Cave, Gebe Island, eastern Indonesia (© Kat Szabó).