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Backdating systematic shell ornament making in Europe to 45,000 years ago


Personal ornaments are commonly linked to the emergence of symbolic behavior. Although their presence in Africa dates back to the Middle Stone Age, evidence of ornament manufacturing in Eurasia are sporadically observed in Middle Palaeolithic contexts, and until now, large-scale diffusion has been well documented only since the Upper Palaeolithic. Nevertheless, little is known during the period between ca. 50,000 and 40,000 years ago (ka), when modern humans colonized Eurasia replacing existing hominin populations such as the Neandertals, and a variety of “transitional” and/or early Upper Palaeolithic cultures emerged. Here, we present shell ornaments from the Uluzzian site of Grotta del Cavallo in Italy, southern Europe. Our results show evidence of a local production of shell beads for ornamental purposes as well as a trend toward higher homogeneity in tusk bead shape and size over time. The temporal interval of the layers of interest (45–40 ka) makes Cavallo the earliest known shell ornament making context in Europe.

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Data availability

The authors can confirm that all data and source codes for analyses are currently included as supplementary information files.


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We thank the Soprintendenza Archeologia, Belle Arti e Paesaggio per le Province di Brindisi, Lecce e Taranto for supporting our research in Apulia over the years. We express our gratitude to Prof. Palma di Cesnola and Prof. Paolo Gambassini for giving us permission to study the Uluzzian materials from their excavations at Grotta del Cavallo. We are grateful to Luigi Romani for his help in taxonomic classification of scaphopods, to Lavinia Corbo who contributed to measuring specimens, and to Stefano Ricci who made photographic documentation of the shells from Grotta del Cavallo. We also acknowledge all the students who helped us in the experimental tests (Francesco Antonini, Giulia Cappelletti, Margherita Gramigni, Simone Marzocca, and Irene Mazza). Special thanks to Sem Scaramucci for his contribution in collecting tusks in Salento and for his precious advice. We are also grateful to the two anonymous reviewers for their careful reading of the manuscript and constructive comments.


This project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program (Grant agreement no. 724046 – SUCCESS—

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S.A., E.B., S.B., and A.M. designed the research; S.A. performed morphological and use-wear analyses. E.B. carried out the statistical analysis. L.T carried out taphonomic and technological analysis. A.B., G.M., and L.T. made the taxonomic classification of the shells. A.M.B and L.M.F. carried out micropaleontological studies, and F.L. and A.C. realized isotope analysis. Experimental tests were performed by S.A., D.A., F. Bo, C.F., G.M., G.O., and S.S. Paleoclimate and paleoecological conditions were described by F.Ba. V.S. collected present-day tusk shells and reconstructed the paleogeographic conditions of the Uluzzian coastline. A.M., M.P., M.R., and A.R. provided archeological data and contributed to the revision of the manuscript. S.A., E.B., A. M., A.B., V.S., L.M.F., A.M.B., M.R., F.L., F.Ba., L.T., and S.B. wrote the paper with inputs from all co-authors.

Correspondence to Simona Arrighi.

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Arrighi, S., Bortolini, E., Tassoni, L. et al. Backdating systematic shell ornament making in Europe to 45,000 years ago. Archaeol Anthropol Sci 12, 59 (2020).

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  • Uluzzian
  • Italy
  • Grotta del Cavallo
  • Shell ornaments