According to fashionistas, you are what your wear. But when did humans start decorating themselves for self-expression? Three bead-like shells from ancient Israel and Algeria suggest that such symbolic behavior occurred at least 100,000 years ago--25,000 years earlier than previously thought.

The findings, reported today in Science by Marian Vanhaeren of the University College London and colleagues, challenge the notion that modern humans developed cultural symbols--a precursor to language--only after they arrived in Europe. "Our paper supports the scenario that modern humans in Africa developed behaviors that are considered modern quite early in time, so that in fact these people were probably not just biologically modern but also culturally and cognitively modern, at least to some degree," says team member Francesco d'Errico of CNRS in Talence, France.

Jewelry, along with other artifacts including cave paintings and musical instruments, indicate that their creators were thinking symbolically, the essence of modern culture. Because symbolic artifacts become plentiful in the archaeological record about 40,000 years ago in Europe, researchers have generally believed that cultural modernity emerged in Europe with modern humans. But two years ago, Vanhaeren and d'Errico found 75,000-year-old snail shell beads from a site in South Africa, raising questions about when bling became big.

The scientists began rooting through museum collections to see if they could find more evidence of early beadworking. Indeed, they found three shells with what appear to be puncture holes very similar to those in the shells found in South Africa. Two of the snail shells, discovered at the Natural History Museum in London, came from a 1930 excavation of a burial site in Israel known as Es-Skhul (see image). The third shell, found at the Musee de l'Homme in Paris, came from the 1940s excavation of a site called Oued Djebbana in Algeria.

To be sure of the antiquity of the beads, the scientists analyzed sediments stuck to the shells and compared them with known dates from the sites. They determined that the Skhul shells came from the same layer of soil where archaeologists found human remains dating to between 100,000 and 135,000 years ago. A single available radio carbon date from Oued Djebbana indicates that the bead is at least 35,000 years old, but other evidence from the site, such as stone tools, suggests that it could be up to 90,000 years old.

A handful of beads may not yet overturn established dogma. But the fact that these snail shells were located far inland from their Mediterranean marine habitat indicates they were transported, perhaps by someone desiring to express their personal style.