WASHINGTON – A collar made of shell beads estimated to be 75,000 years old and found in a cave in South Africa is believed to be the oldest known jewellery, appearing 30,000 years before what had previously been considered the first signs of civilisation, researchers said.

Archaeologists discovered 41 beads the size of peas with holes bored in them in the Blombos Cave on the Indian Ocean coast, according to an article in the April 16 edition of the journal Science.

The discovery was made in a layer of sediment dating from the middle of the Stone Age, researchers said.

The beads were made from the shells of a mollusk native to nearby waters, and contained traces of red ochre, indicating they were coloured with pigment.

The discovered reinforces the theory that civilisation developed earlier than first believed, said Christopher Henshilwood, program director of the Blombos Cave Project and professor at the Centre for Development Studies of the University of Bergen in Noway.

“The Blombos Cave beads present absolute evidence for perhaps the earliest storage of information outside the human brain. Once symbolically mediated behaviour was adopted by our ancestors it meant communication strategies rapidly shifted, leading to the transmission of individual and widely shared cultural values – trains that typify our own behaviour,” Henshilwood said.

“If the dates hold up we now seem to be seeing a trail of representational objects that is increasingly older as we move back into Africa,” Randall White of New York University said in another article on the discovery.