Nautilus Shell Adornments Were All the Rage 12,000 Years Ago in Indonesia

Have you ever marveled at the lustrous mother-of-pearl coating on the interior shell of an oyster or abalone? The Nautilus pompilius, commonly known as the “pearly nautilus,” also has an iridescent, silvery interior shell — a shell so extraordinary that Indonesian island communities were cherishing it during the late Ice Age.

Australian and Indonesian researchers discovered hundreds of carefully crafted Nautilus shell beads in a Makpan Cave on the Indonesian island of Alor, one in a string of islands that run West to East just north of Australia. The carved and drilled reflective beads were fabricated 12,000 years ago and were likely sewn like sequins onto clothing. The beads averaged about a quarter inch across, but some were nearly a half-inch wide.

What’s more, the pearly fashion statements — most with two drill holes — match up with similar findings on the neighboring Indonesian islands of Timor and Kisar, proving that the populations participated in a maritime network and shared traditions. The scientists discovered that the nacreous surface of several beads had been deliberately scratched with a stone tool edge, possibly to increase their reflectivity.

The team, led by Griffith University’s Associate Professor Michelle Langley and the Australian National University’s Professor Sue O’Connor, used advanced microscopic analysis to investigate the Nautilus shell beads. The team explained on the Griffith University website that recent DNA evidence has shown how people on different Indonesian islands were genetically related, but the shell beads are now putting into focus how culturally similar the populations were.

“The time and skill required to create the tiny shiny beads in the numbers found archaeologically must have been extensive, suggesting that the beads were an important part of the Makpan community’s repertoire of adornment,” said Langley, the study’s lead author.

The nautilus mollusk, which measures about 9 inches across, is difficult to harvest because they inhabit depths of 200 to 300 meters. When a nautilus dies, however, the shell becomes buoyant and floats to the surface. The scientists surmised that the shells used for jewelry were likely harvested this way.

The research team found thousands of shells in the food waste during the excavation of the Makpan cave, but barely any of them were nautilus. This led them to the conclusion that the nautilus was not a food source, but utilized specifically for crafting.

Because the Makpan community had the luxury of securing and processing resources for aesthetic uses without any obvious other practical benefit, the scientists believe that the society was secure and prosperous.

All of these factors combine to create “an image of an inter-island ‘community of practice’ with shared values and worldviews,” noted Langley. “It is likely that the populations of these islands shared a distinctive culture, exchanging style, goods, technology and genes across the sea.”

The archaeological evidence also shows that the inter-island communities shared a love of obsidian, a shiny black volcanic glass. The scientists believe the obsidian originated at a single source, but they have yet to find it.

The study was recently published in the journal Antiquity.

Credits: Images by Michelle Langley, Griffith University.


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