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Shell ornaments and modern humans in southern Europe

Posted on 9 April 2019

York lecturer Andre Colonese publishes new research on the making and use of personal ornaments by early anatomically modern humans

Andre Colonese has just published a paper on shell ornaments associated with some of the very early Anatomically Modern Humans in Southern Europe.

The making and use of personal ornaments has been at the center of a vibrant debate on the origin of modern cognitive behavior associated with Anatomically Modern Humans within and outside Africa. The Aurignacian deposits of Fumane Cave (NE Italy) offer unique archaeological records in which it is possible to observe evidence of the main cultural symbolic features of European Anatomically Modern Humans.

The aim of this contribution is to enhance our knowledge about the ethno-cultural diversity of this period by re-examining shell assemblages associated with personal ornaments. Taxonomical, palaeoecological, and taphonomical analyses were performed on a rich assemblage of marine shells retrieved from the Protoaurignacian and Early Aurignacian contexts of Fumane Cave. Over 800 shells were recovered, representing 65 different taxa, including 55 gastropods, 9 bivalves, and 1 scaphopod.Direct AMS dating of some perforated shells show strong consistency with other 14C dates obtained from the same sedimentary units, demonstrating that shells were collected on beaches dated to the Marine Isotope Stage 3 (MIS3). A range of use-wear traces and ochre residues observed at stereomicroscope and scanning electron microscope levels on well-preserved perforation edges indicates that the shells were systematically manufactured and used as personal ornaments. Although no clear differences have been observed between the two assemblages, comparisons within the techno-complex confirm that the Aurignacian of Fumane Cave was under the influence of the Southern European ethno-linguistic group. 

Read the full paper in PaleoAnthropology 2019 (64−81) online at

Image: Polish-wear in both extremities of the Antalis cfr. inaequicostata (Protoaurignacian), and in a small portion of the external surface of the shell (scale bar 1mm)