Archaeologists report in this week's Science that they have found shell beads in Algeria and Israel dating back to about 90,000 and 100,000 BP respectively. Humans drilled holes in the mollusc shells which would have allowed them to be strung as beads on bracelets or necklaces. This pushes back the previously known earliest date from 75,00 BP. The shells are from the same marine species as the 75,000 BP shells found in South Africa, suggesting a very conservative or stereotyped tradition (as is also the case for stone work dating this far back). The wide geographical spread suggests origins much earlier than even 100,000 BP. Furthermore, the Algerian shells were found in a cave about 200 km from the ancient shoreline, indicating long distance distribution (whether via trade or other transactions or just transport) of either the unworked shells, the beads, or both.
As I have previously explained, while these objects undoubtedly may have served some symbolic purposes, they were neither merely nor primarily symbolic. These necklaces were objects whose monetary properties, such as unforgeable costliness, divisibility, and security, were optimized given the available technologies (i.e. no metal working). These objects, which I have called "collectibles," differ from modern views of money only in two basic ways:
* They differ from many modern legal definitions of "money" (e.g. that of the U.S. Uniform Commercial Code) insofar as they were not minted or authorized by sovereign governments, hunter-gatherer societies having no such entities.
* Their primary uses were not for market exchange. Rather, by solving the double (or more) coincidence of wants problem, they solved more basic cooperation problems of kin altruism, reciprocal altruism, and the mitigation of aggression, and thus gained homo sapiens -- perhaps we should be called homo monetarius -- an important evolutionary advantage over homo neanderthalensis and other animals. This is probably also reflected in the human instinct to collect shells and other bright objects, an instinct not found in other primates and an instinct which would have allowed us to gain these advantages in cooperation over other animals.
Again my thanks to Ian Grigg for the pointer to this latest news.