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