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Just like people do today, prehistoric humans liked to adorn themselves with beautiful objects. Shells, from creatures like clams and snails, were used to decorate clothing or worn as jewelry at least as far back as 100,000 years ago. Later people used shells as the raw materials to make beads or bracelets. Learning where the shells came from may help scientists understand why prehistoric people chose certain shells and not others. It may also offer clues about how they used natural resources and the cultural significance of these objects. But identifying the shells is difficult because they lose many of their original distinctive features when worked into ornaments.
New tools that use DNA or proteins to identify the raw materials used to craft ancient artifacts have emerged that may help. So far, scientists have mostly used these genomic and proteomic tools to identify the source of materials made from animal hide, ivory or bone – where collagen is the most abundant protein molecule. Yet it is more challenging to extract and characterize proteins or genetic material from mollusc shells. This is partly because the amount of proteins in shells is at least 300 times lower than in bone, and also because the makeup of proteins in shells is not as well-known as in collagen.
Sakalauskaite et al. have now overcome these issues by combining the analytical tools used to study the proteins and mineral content of modern shells with those of ancient protein research. They then used this approach, which they named palaeoshellomics, to extract proteins from seven “double-buttons” – pearl-like ornaments crafted by prehistoric people in Europe. The double-buttons were made between 4200 and 3800 BC and found at archeological sites in Denmark, Germany and Romania. Comparing the extracted proteins to those from various mollusc shells showed that the double-buttons were made from freshwater mussels belonging to a group known as the Unionoida.
The discovery helps settle a decade-long debate in archeology about the origin of the shells used to make double-buttons in prehistoric Europe. Ancient people often crafted ornaments from marine shells, because they were exotic and considered more prestigious. But the results on the double-buttons suggest instead that mother-of-pearl from fresh water shells was valued and used by groups throughout Europe, even those living in coastal areas. The palaeoshellomics technique used by Sakalauskaite et al. may now help identify the origins of shells from archeological and palaeontological sites.