Researchers have discovered that 6000-years-ago people across Europe shared a cultural tradition of using freshwater mussel shells to craft ornaments.

Jorune Sakalauskaite, Søren Andersen, Paolo Biagi, Maria A Borrello, Théophile Cocquerez, André Carlo Colonese, Federica Dal Bello, Alberto Girod, Marion Heumüller, Hannah Koon, Giorgia Mandili, Claudio Medana, Kirsty E H Penkman, Laurent Plasseraud, Helmut Schlichtherle, Sheila Taylor, Caroline Tokarski, Jérôme Thomas, Julie Wilson, Frédéric Marin, Beatrice Demarchi. 'Palaeoshellomics' reveals the use of freshwater mother-of-pearl in prehistoryeLife, 2019; 8 DOI: 10.7554/eLife.45644

The extensive use of mollusc shell as a versatile raw material is testament to its importance in prehistoric times. The consistent choice of certain species for different purposes, including the making of ornaments, is a direct representation of how humans viewed and exploited their environment. The necessary taxonomic information, however, is often impossible to obtain from objects that are small, heavily worked or degraded. Here we propose a novel biogeochemical approach to track the biological origin of prehistoric mollusc shell. We conducted an in-depth study of archaeological ornaments using microstructural, geochemical and biomolecular analyses, including 'palaeoshellomics', the first application of palaeoproteomics to mollusc shells (and indeed to any invertebrate calcified tissue). We reveal the consistent use of locally-sourced freshwater mother-of-pearl for the standardized manufacture of 'double-buttons'. This craft is found throughout Europe between 4200 - 3800 BCE, highlighting the ornament-makers' profound knowledge of the biogeosphere and the existence of cross-cultural traditions.