Shell jewelry

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Shell jewelry for sale on a beach in Vietnam, 1990 Jewelry made of shells.jpg
Shell jewelry for sale on a beach in Vietnam, 1990
Necklaces made in Raratonga, Cook Islands Shell necklaces (Cook Islands).jpg
Necklaces made in Raratonga, Cook Islands
A Stone Age burial in Brittany dating from 5000-7000 BC shows the skeletons of two women who were buried wearing necklaces made of numerous shells of the sea snail Trivia. Sepulture de Teviec (5).jpg
A Stone Age burial in Brittany dating from 5000-7000 BC shows the skeletons of two women who were buried wearing necklaces made of numerous shells of the sea snail Trivia .

Shell jewelry is jewelry that is primarily made from seashells, the shells of marine mollusks. Shell jewelry is a type of shellcraft. One very common form of shell jewelry is necklaces that are composed of large numbers of beads, where each individual bead is the whole (but often drilled) shell of a small sea snail. Numerous other varieties of shell jewelry are made, including bracelets and earrings.


As well as sea snail shells, shell jewelry also sometimes uses the shells of clams (bivalves) and tusk shells (scaphopods). Occasionally shell jewelry is made from the shells of non-marine mollusks such as the shells of land snails , or the shells of freshwater mollusks. Not all shell jewelry is made from whole shells; some kinds are made from parts of shells, including the shell layer known as mother of pearl or nacre, and the "trapdoor" or operculum which is part of some sea snails.

In recent times, inexpensive shell jewelry is often found at tropical beach destinations, where it is offered to tourists as informal wear, or as a souvenir. However, shell jewelry has a very ancient past, and is of great importance in archeology and anthropology. In fact, shell beads are the oldest form of jewelry known, dating back over 100,000 years.

In prehistory

The oldest known jewelry in the world consists of two perforated beads made from shells of the sea snail Nassarius gibbosulus . These beads were discovered at Skhul in Israel, and were recently dated to between 100,000 and 135,000 years ago. [1] [2] Similar ornaments (some made from shells of Nassarius kraussianus and the bittersweet clam Glycymeris nummaria as well as from Nassarius gibbosulus) have been discovered at a number of Middle Paleolithic sites, and are considered a key piece of evidence for the theory that early anatomically modern humans in Africa and the Levant were more culturally sophisticated than had previously been thought. [3] [4] [5] In some cases shells had been transported a considerable distance from the species' natural habitat. One example is the site of Oued Djebbana in Algeria, for example, where an N. gibbosulus bead was found; at the time the shell was used there, this site was at least 190 km away from the sea. [2]

Shell ornaments were very common during the Upper Paleolithic, from 50–40,000 years ago onwards, when they spread with modern humans to Europe and Asia. They generally take the form of perforated shells (as well as other hard organic material such as tooth, bone, antler and mammoth ivory) which are thought to have been suspended and used as jewelry. The most commonly found species are Homalopoma sanguineum , Littorina obtusata , Cyclope species, Nassarius mutabilis and Nassarius gibbosulus. Fossil shells were used alongside those of contemporary species. Some shells were stained with ochre. In Europe, the shells of both Atlantic and Mediterranean species were used, again circulating over distances of hundreds of kilometers. [6] During the neolithic period shell necklaces were made with the shells of 3 genera Spondylus, Glycymeris and Charonia. [7]

See also

Related Research Articles

Bead Small decorative object with drilled hole

A bead is a small, decorative object that is formed in a variety of shapes and sizes of a material such as stone, bone, shell, glass, plastic, wood or pearl and with a small hole for threading or stringing. Beads range in size from under 1 millimetre (0.039 in) to over 1 centimetre (0.39 in) in diameter. A pair of beads made from Nassarius sea snail shells, approximately 100,000 years old, are thought to be the earliest known examples of jewellery. Beadwork is the art or craft of making things with beads. Beads can be woven together with specialized thread, strung onto thread or soft, flexible wire, or adhered to a surface.

Pearl Hard object produced within a living shelled mollusc

A pearl is a hard, glistening object produced within the soft tissue of a living shelled mollusk or another animal, such as fossil conulariids. Just like the shell of a mollusk, a pearl is composed of calcium carbonate in minute crystalline form, which has deposited in concentric layers. The ideal pearl is perfectly round and smooth, but many other shapes, known as baroque pearls, can occur. The finest quality of natural pearls have been highly valued as gemstones and objects of beauty for many centuries. Because of this, pearl has become a metaphor for something rare, fine, admirable and valuable.

Seashell Hard, protective outer layer created by an animal that lives in the sea

A seashell or sea shell, also known simply as a shell, is a hard, protective outer layer usually created by an animal that lives in the sea. The shell is part of the body of the animal. Empty seashells are often found washed up on beaches by beachcombers. The shells are empty because the animal has died and the soft parts have been eaten by another animal or have decomposed.

Early modern human Old Stone Age Homo sapiens

Early modern human (EMH) or anatomically modern human (AMH) are terms used to distinguish Homo sapiens that are anatomically consistent with the range of phenotypes seen in contemporary humans from extinct archaic human species. This distinction is useful especially for times and regions where anatomically modern and archaic humans co-existed, for example, in Paleolithic Europe. Among the oldest known remains of Homo sapiens are those found at the Omo-Kibish I archaeological site in south-western Ethiopia, dating to about 196,000 years ago, the Florisbad site in South Africa, dating to about 259,000 years ago, and the Jebel Irhoud site in Morocco, dated about 300,000 years old.

<i>Spondylus</i> Genus of molluscs

Spondylus is a genus of bivalve molluscs, the only genus in the family Spondylidae. They are known in English as spiny oysters.

Behavioral modernity Transition of human species to anthropologically modern behavior

Behavioral modernity is a suite of behavioral and cognitive traits that distinguishes current Homo sapiens from other anatomically modern humans, hominins, and primates. Most scholars agree that modern human behavior can be characterized by abstract thinking, planning depth, symbolic behavior, music and dance, exploitation of large game, and blade technology, among others. Underlying these behaviors and technological innovations are cognitive and cultural foundations that have been documented experimentally and ethnographically by evolutionary and cultural anthropologists. These human universal patterns include cumulative cultural adaptation, social norms, language, and extensive help and cooperation beyond close kin.

African archaeology Archaeology conducted in Africa

Africa has the longest record of human habitation in the world. The first hominins emerged 6-7 million years ago, and among the earliest anatomically modern human skulls found so far were discovered at Omo Kibish, Jebel Irhoud, and Florisbad.


The Aterian is a Middle Stone Age stone tool industry centered in North Africa, but also possibly found in Oman, the Thar Desert, Sahara and northeast Africa. The earliest Aterian dates to c. 150,000 years ago, at the site of Ifri n'Ammar in Morocco. However, most of the early dates cluster around the beginning of the Last Interglacial, around 150,000 to 130,000 years ago, when the environment of North Africa began to ameliorate. The Aterian disappeared around 20,000 years ago.

Chimor Political grouping of the Chimú culture in early Peru

Chimor was the political grouping of the Chimú culture. The culture arose about 900 AD, succeeding the Moche culture, and was later conquered by the Inca emperor Topa Inca Yupanqui around 1470, fifty years before the arrival of the Spanish in the region. Chimor was the largest kingdom in the Late Intermediate Period, encompassing 1,000 kilometres of coastline.

Blombos Cave

Blombos Cave is an archaeological site located in Blombos Private Nature Reserve, about 300 km east of Cape Town on the Southern Cape coastline, South Africa. The cave contains Middle Stone Age (MSA) deposits currently dated at between c. 100,000 and 70,000 years Before Present (BP), and a Late Stone Age sequence dated at between 2000 and 300 years BP. The cave site was first excavated in 1991 and field work has been conducted there on a regular basis since 1997, and is ongoing.

The shells of large saltwater bittersweet clams in the genus Glycymeris have a special archaeological significance in the southwestern USA, because the shells were used in trade item production by the Hohokam tribe of Amerindians. In this context the shells are known to archeologists as "Glycymeris shells".

Puka shells are naturally occurring bead-like objects which can be found on some beaches in Hawaii. Each one is the beach-worn apex of a cone snail shell, a kind of seashell from a sea snail. Puka is the Hawaiian word for "hole" and refers to the naturally occurring hole in the middle of these rounded and worn shell fragments. These natural beads are made into necklaces.

<i>Nassarius</i> Genus of gastropods

Nassarius, common name nassa mud snails (USA) or dog whelks (UK), is a genus of minute to medium-sized sea snails, marine gastropod molluscs in the family Nassariidae. They are scavengers.

Middle Stone Age Period in African prehistory

The Middle Stone Age was a period of African prehistory between the Early Stone Age and the Later Stone Age. It is generally considered to have begun around 280,000 years ago and ended around 50–25,000 years ago. The beginnings of particular MSA stone tools have their origins as far back as 550–500,000 years ago and as such some researchers consider this to be the beginnings of the MSA. The MSA is often mistakenly understood to be synonymous with the Middle Paleolithic of Europe, especially due to their roughly contemporaneous time span, however, the Middle Paleolithic of Europe represents an entirely different hominin population, Homo neanderthalensis, than the MSA of Africa, which did not have Neanderthal populations. Additionally, current archaeological research in Africa has yielded much evidence to suggest that modern human behavior and cognition was beginning to develop much earlier in Africa during the MSA than it was in Europe during the Middle Paleolithic. The MSA is associated with both anatomically modern humans as well as archaic Homo sapiens, sometimes referred to as Homo helmei. Early physical evidence comes from the Gademotta Formation in Ethiopia, the Kapthurin Formation in Kenya and Kathu Pan in South Africa.

Sibudu Cave

Sibudu Cave is a rock shelter in a sandstone cliff in northern KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. It is an important Middle Stone Age site occupied, with some gaps, from 77,000 years ago to 38,000 years ago.

<i>Tritia gibbosula</i> Species of gastropod

Tritia gibbosula, common name the swollen nassa, is a species of sea snail, a marine gastropod mollusc in the family Nassariidae, the Nassa mud snails or dog whelks.

Skhul and Qafzeh hominins Hominin fossils

The Skhul/Qafzeh hominins or Qafzeh–Skhul early modern humans are hominin fossils discovered in Es-Skhul and Qafzeh caves in Israel. They are today classified as Homo sapiens, among the earliest of their species in Eurasia. Skhul Cave is on the slopes of Mount Carmel; Qafzeh Cave is a rockshelter near Nazareth in Lower Galilee.


Taforalt or Grotte des Pigeons is a cave in the province of Berkane, Béni Iznasen region, Morocco, possibly the oldest cemetery in North Africa. It contained at least 34 Iberomaurusian adolescent and adult human skeletons, as well as younger ones, from the Upper Palaeolithic between 15,100 and 14,000 calendar years ago. There is archaeological evidence for Iberomaurusian occupation at the site between 23,200 and 12,600 calendar years ago, as well as evidence for Aterian occupation as old as 85,000 years.

Cueva Antón Cave and archaeological site in Spain

Cueva Antón is a paleoanthropological and archeological site in the Region of Murcia of southeast Spain. The cave is located about 60 kilometers from the Mediterranean port city of Cartagena inland in the territory of the municipality of Mula. It was eroded by the Río Mula and served as a cave in the Middle Palaeolithic inhabited by Neanderthals. The cave became internationally known in 2010, after a shell at least 43,000 years old with adhering orange pigment was discovered there. The pigment found was interpreted as evidence that the shell was used "in an aesthetic and probably symbolic" way. The find from the Cueva Antón was published together with similar finds from the Cave of Los Aviones; they were named as the first such Neanderthal jewelry found in Europe. The colonization of the Iberian Peninsula by modern man took place only several thousand years after the creation of the jewelry from the Cueva Antón. This site is the last known place where Neanderthal people resided.

Francesco dErrico (b.1957) Italian archaeologist

Francesco d'Errico is an archaeologist who works as CNRS Director of Research at the University of Bordeaux in France and Professor at the Centre for Early Sapiens Behaviour, University of Bergen. In 2014 he was awarded the CNRS silver medal. In 2015 Giorgio Napolitano, president of Italy, presented him with the Fabio-Frassetto prize from the Accademia dei Lincei.


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