Marian Vanhaeren & Wulf Schiefenhövel

On the Use of Natural, Experimental and Ethnographical Malacological Reference Collections for the Interpretation of Prehistoric Shell Beads

Prehistoric shell beads, the oldest of which are ca. 100 000 years old, are an important element of the archaeological record. Their interpretation is however not always straightforward. First, the anthropogenic nature of purported beads must be verified; secondly, the way in which they were made, assembled and worn reconstructed and lastly, their social function and significance in the evolutionary history of the species utilised also needs to be understood. Application of taphonomic, microscopic, morphometric and elemental analyses as well as GIS and statistical tools on natural, experimental and ethnographical malacological reference collections is instrumental for finding answers to these questions. Here we present some firsthand case studies to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the applied approach and to draw some lines of inquiry for the future. These include: 1) analysis of the earliest known shell beads from Africa, Europe, Western and Eastern Asia; 2) attempts to reconstruct prehistoric beadwork that investigates perceptions of beauty as a primary function of personal ornaments; and 3) exchange networks, social structures and ethno-cultural diversity of prehistoric populations. We also used fieldwork results of research conducted in mainland and island New Guinea, culturally one of the most diverse regions of the world, to exemplify the potential of ethnoarchaeology.

Keywords: taphonomy, morphometry, microscopy, perforation, wear, colouration.

Figure: Typology (top) and macrophotos (bottom) of natural perforations present on Nassarius kraussianus shells collected in the Duiwenhoks estuary, Western Cape Province, South Africa. Modified after d´Errico et al. 2005.