Shell Beadwork

The Blombos marine shell beads, with reconstruction of the necklace. The Blombos marine shell beads, with reconstruction of the necklace.

The use of shells and beads made from bird's eggs, land snails, molluscs and sea shells is probably one of the oldest forms of decorative needlework and still used today. Sixty-five small mollusc shells (Nassarius Kraussianus), perforated with a bone tool, were found in 2004 in Blombos Cave (South Africa). They may have been strung together into necklaces or bracelets and are dated to c. 70,000 to 75,000 years ago.

In the same year, ostrich shell beads, dating to about 70,000 years ago, were found in Tanzania. These discoveries sparked a debate about the origin of modern humans.

Wearing decorative objects, as protective talismans or as markers of group or individual identity, is regarded by many scholars as a sign of modern human behaviour. A re-examination of perforated shell beads (Nassarius gibbosulus) found in excavations of the 1930's and 1940's at Oued Djebbana (Algeria) and Skhul (Israel), resulted in dates of some 35,000 to 90,000 years ago, and 100,000 years ago, respectively, so making the emergence of modern humans earlier than had previously been considered.

Nine thousand year-old beads from olive snail shells (Olivella biplicata) have been found in central California (USA). In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, members of the Iroquois Confederacy (USA) used beads cut from either the purple or white parts of quahog clams (Mercenaria mercenaria) and the white shells of whelks (Busycotypus canaliculatus) to make belts, pendants, necklaces and wampum (a Narragamsett word meaning ‘white shell beads’). The latter, made by stringing shell beads onto a twisted plant fibre such as milkweed, toad flax or nettles, was used as currency by both American Indians and European colonists. 

The use of whole shells or of beads made from shells and attached to textiles or garments can been found throughout Africa, Asia, Europe, the Middle East, North and South America as well as the Pacific. Cowrie shells (Cypraea moneta) were sewn on garments to promote fertility or used as currency in China, and other Asian cultures, and throughout western Africa.

See also the TRC Needles entry on Native American decorative needlework.

Digital source of illustration (retrieved 8th July 2016).


Last modified on Monday, 26 June 2017 17:42
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