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Japan's oldest-known color accessory found in Paleolithic Okinawa cave ruins

The oldest color decorative object in Japan, made from a type of tusk shell, is seen at the Okinawa Prefectural Museum and Art Museum in the prefectural capital Naha, on Oct. 21, 2021. The pigment is still present in the shell's center. It was discovered at the Sakitari-do cave site in the prefecture city of Nanjo. (Mainichi/Shinnosuke Kyan)

NAHA -- Japan's oldest-known color accessory has been unearthed from a stratum in cave ruins dating back to the Paleolithic period about 23,000 years ago in southernmost Okinawa Prefecture, a local museum announced on Oct. 21.

    According to the Okinawa Prefectural Museum and Art Museum, the bead, made of a type of tusk shell and measuring about 13 millimeters long and 8 mm wide, was found coated in red pigment. Pigmented earthenware and decorative items have been found in Japan at Jomon period sites dating back at least about 15,000 years, but this is the first time one from the Paleolithic period has been found. The discovery will provide valuable clues to Paleolithic people's culture.

    At the Sakitari-do cave site in the prefectural city of Nanjo, where research began in fiscal 2009, shell artifacts including fishhooks and decorative shell beads believed to be the world's oldest were discovered in strata dating from about 20,000 to 23,000 years ago. This drew attention to a "shell culture" different from that of Paleolithic people on the country's mainland.

    The tusk shell accessory was unearthed in 2013, and is thought to have been used as a bead by threading string through its hollow. Red pigment based on iron oxide was found applied to the center's surface.

    Seiji Kadowaki, a lecturer at the Nagoya University Museum who specializes in prehistoric archaeology, said, "It appears ancient people took a lot of time and effort to make these objects, from finding the shells to coloring them. The decorative objects may have been used as tools for communication, which is also interesting in terms of human history."

    (Japanese original by Takayasu Endo, Naha Bureau)

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