Hostname: page-component-6b989bf9dc-cvxtj Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2024-04-13T18:01:43.729Z Has data issue: false hasContentIssue false

Shell beads and social behaviour in Pleistocene Australia

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  02 January 2015

Jane Balme
*Archaeology, School of Social and Cultural Studies, University of Western Australia, Australia
Kate Morse
*Archaeology, School of Social and Cultural Studies, University of Western Australia, Australia


Why did Palaeolithic people wear shells, and why was the practice so widespread in the world? The authors' own researches in Western Australia show that specific marine shells were targeted, subject to special processes of manufacture into beads and that some had travelled hundreds of kilometres from their source. Whether they were brought in land by the manufacturers, or by specially ornamented people, these beads provided a symbolic language that somehow kept the early peoples of Australia in touch with the sea.

Copyright © Antiquity Publications Ltd. 2006

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


Ambrose, S.H. 1998. Chronology of the Later Stone Age and food production in east Africa. Journal of Archaeological Science 25: 377–92.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Balme, J. 2000. Excavation revealing 40 000 years of occupation at Mimbi Caves, south central Kimberley, Western Australia. Australian Archaeology 51: 15.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Balme, J. & Bowdler, S.. In press. Spear and digging stick: the origin of gender and its implications for the colonization of new continents. Journal of Social Archaeology 6 (3): 379401.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Bar-Yosef Mayer, D.E. 2005. The exploitation of shell beads in the Palaeolithic and Neolithic of the Levant. Paléorient 31: 176–85.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Bowler, J.M. & Thorne, A.G.. 1976. Human remains from Lake Mungo: Discovery and excavation of Lake Mungo III, in Kirk, R.L. & Thorne, A.G. (ed.) The Origin of the Australians: 127–38. Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies.Google Scholar
Bowler, J.M., Jones, R., Allen, H. & Thorne, A.G.. 1970. Pleistocene human remains from Australia: a living site and human cremation from Lake Mungo, western New South Wales. World Archaeology 2: 3960.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Brumm, A. & Moore, M.. 2005. Symbolic revolutions and the Australian archaeological record. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 15: 157–75.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Conard, N.J. & Bolus, M.. 2003. Radiocarbon dating and the appearance of modern humans and timing of cultural innovations in Europe: new results and new challenges. Journal of Human Evolution 44: 332–71.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Davidson, I. & Noble, W.. 1992a. Why the first colonisation of the Australian region is the earliest evidence for modern human behaviour. Archaeology in Oceania 27: 135–42.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Davidson, I. & Noble, W.. 1992b. Language gap. Nature 355: 403–4.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Debéneth, A. 1994. L'Atérien du nord de l'Afrique du Sahara. Sahara 6: 2130.Google Scholar
d'Errico, F., Henshilwood, C., Vanhaeren, M. & van Niekerk, K.. 2005. Nassarius karassianus shell beads from Blombos Cave: evidence for symbolic evidence in the Middle Stone Age. Journal of Human Evolution 48: 324.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Dortch, C. 1979. Australia's oldest known ornaments. Antiquity 53: 3943.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Gamble, C. 1999. The Palaeolithic Societies of Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
Henshilwood, C. & Marean, C.. 2003. The origin of modern human behaviour: critique of the models and their test implications. Current Anthropology 44 (5): 627–51.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Henshilwood, C., d'Errico, F., Vanhaeren, M., van Niekerk, K. & Jacobs, Z.. 2004. Middle Stone Age shell beads from South Africa. Science 304 (5669): 404.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Hiscock, P. & Wallis, L.. 2004. Pleistocene settlements of deserts from an Australian perspective, in Veth, P., Smith, M. & Hiscock, P. (ed.) Desert Peoples: Archaeological Perspectives: 3457. Oxford: Blackwell.Google Scholar
Kozlowski, J.K. 2000. The problem of cultural continuity between the middle and Upper Palaeolithic in central and eastern Europe, in Bar-Yosef, O., & Pilbeam, D. (ed.) The Geography of Neandertals and Modern Humans in Europe and the Greater Mediterranean: 77106. Cambridge (MA): Peabody Museum Bulletin 8, Harvard University.Google Scholar
Kuhn, S.L., Stiner, M.C., Reese, D.S. & Gulec, E.. 2001. Ornaments of the earliest Upper Palaeolithic: New insights from the Levant. Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences of the United States of America 98 (13): 7641–6.Google Scholar
McBreaty, S. & Brooks, A.S.. 2000. The revolution that wasn't: a new interpretation of the origin of modern human behaviour. Journal of Human Evolution 39: 453563.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Mellars, P. 2005. The impossible coincidence. A single-species model for the origins of modern human behaviour in Europe. Evolutionary Anthropology 14: 1227.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Morse, K. 1993. Shell beads from Mandu Mandu Creek rock-shelter, Cape Range Peninsula, Western Australia, dated before 30 000 BP. Antiquity 67: 877–83.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
O'Connell, J.F. & Allen, F.J.. 1998. When did humans first arrive in Greater Australia, and why is it important to know? Evolutionary Anthropology 6: 132–46.3.0.CO;2-F>CrossRefGoogle Scholar
O'Connor, S. 1995. Carpenter's Gap rockshelter I: 40 000 years of Aboriginal occupation in the Napier Ranges, Kimberley, WA. Australian Archaeology 40: 58–9.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
O'Connor, S. 1999. 30 000 Years of Aboriginal Occupation: Kimberley, North West Australia. Canberra: Department of Archaeology and Natural History and Centre for Archaeological Research, Australian National University.Google Scholar
O'Connor, S. & Fankhauser, B.. 2001. One step closer: an ochre covered rock from Carpenter's Gap Shelter 1, Kimberley region, Western Australia, in Anderson, A., Lilley, I. & O'Connor, S. (ed.) Histories of Old Ages: Essays in Honour of Rhys Jones: 287300. Canberra: Centre for Archaeological Research and Pandanus Books, The Australian National University.Google Scholar
O'Connor, S. & Veth, P.. 2006. Revisiting the past: Changing interpretations of Pleistocene settlement, subsistence and demograpahy in northern Australia, in Lilley, I. (ed.) Archaeology of Oceania: Australia and the Pacific Islands: 3147. Malden (MA): Blackwell.Google Scholar
Roberts, R.G., Jones, R. & Smith, M.A.. 1994. Beyond the radiocarbon barrier in Australian prehistory. Antiquity 68: 611–6.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Roth, W.E. 1897. Ethnological Studies Among the North-West-Central Queensland Aborigines. Brisbane: Edmond Gregory Government Printer.Google Scholar
Sali, S.A. 1989. The Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic cultures of Maharashtra. Pune: Deccan College Post Graduate and Research Institute.Google Scholar
Shennan, S. 2001. Demography and cultural innovation: a model and its implications for the emergence of modern human culture. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 11 (1): 516.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Stiner, M. 1999. Palaeolithic mollusc exploitation at Riparo Mochi (Balzi Rossi, Italy): food and ornaments from the Aurignacian through Epigravettian. Antiquity 73: 735–54.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Stringer, C. 2001. Modern human origins – distinguishing the models. African Archaeological Review 18 (2): 6775.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Taborin, Y. 1993. Shells of the French Aurignacian and Périgordian, in Knecht, H., Pike-Tay, A. & White, R. (ed.) Before Lascaux: The complex record of the Early Upper Palaeolithic: 211–27. Boca Raton: CRC Press.Google Scholar
Taborin, Y. 2003. La mer et les premiers hommes modernes, in Vandermeersch, B. (ed.) Echanges et diffusion dans la préhistoire méditerranéenne: 113–21. Paris: Editions du Comité des travaux histroriques et scientifiques.Google Scholar
Vanhaeren, M. & d'Errico, F.. 2003. Childhood in the Epipalaeolithic. What do personal ornaments associated with burials tell us?, in Larsson, L., Kindgren, H., Knutsson, K., Leoffler, D. & Akerlund, A. (ed.) Mesolithic on the Move: Papers presented at the 6th International Conference on the Mesolithic in Europe, Stockholm 2000: 494505. Oxford: Oxbow.Google Scholar
Vanhaeren, M., d'Errico, F., Stringer, C., James, S.L., Todd, J.A. & Mienis, Henk K.. 2006. Middle Paleolithic shell beads in Israel and Algeria. Science 312: 1785–8.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Wells, F.E. & Bryce, C.W.. 2000. Seashells of Western Australia. Perth: Western Australian Museum.Google Scholar
White, R. 1982. Rethinking the middle/upper Palaeolithic transition. Current Anthropology 23: 169–92.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
White, R. 1989. Production complexity and standardisation in Early Aurignacian Bead and Pendant manufacture: Evolutionary implications, in Mellars, P. & Stringer, C. (ed.) The Human Revolution. Behavioural and Biological Perspectives on the Origins of Modern Humans: 366–90. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.Google Scholar
White, R. 1992. Beyond art: Toward an understanding of the origins of material representation in Europe. Annual Review of Anthropology 21: 537–64.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
White, R. 1993. Technological and social dimensions of ‘Aurignacian-Age’ body ornaments across Europe, in Knecht, H., Pike-Tay, A. & White, R. (ed.) Before Lascaux: The complex record of the Early Upper Palaeolithic: 277–99. Boca Raton: CRC Press.Google Scholar
Wobst, H.M. 1977. Stylistic Behavior and Information Exchange, in Cleland, C.E. (ed.) Papers for the Director: Research essays in honour of James B. Griffen: 317–42. Ann Arbor: Museum of Anthropology/University of Michigan Press.Google Scholar
Zilhão, J. & d'Errico, F.. 2003. The chronology of the Aurignacian and transitional technocomplexes. Where do we stand?, in Zilhão, J. & d'Errico, F. (ed.) The Chronology of the Aurignacian and of the Transitional Technocomplexes. Dating, Stratigraphies, Cultural Implications: 313–49. Lisbon: Insituto Português de Arqueologia.Google Scholar