Rewriting conventional wisdom on where and when humans first harvested natural pearls, French researchers have unearthed a remarkably well preserved 7,500-year-old natural pearl at an ancient gravesite in the United Arab Emirates. Until this discovery, the oldest known natural pearl was thought to be 5,000 years old and of Japanese origin.
Measuring about 2mm in diameter, the French discovery has been dubbed the Umm al Quwain pearl in honor of the town in which it was found.
Researchers Vincent Charpentier, Carl S. Phillips and Sophie Méry wrote in the journal Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy that although pearl diving was difficult and dangerous, pearls and mother-of-pearl were highly prized by Neolithic communities in the year 5,500 B.C.
Discovery News noted that natural pearls were often incorporated into the funeral ceremonies of ancient Arabian civilizations. They were either half-drilled for a man, or fully drilled for a woman. In the case of the Umm al Quwain pearl, it was placed on the upper lip of the deceased and appears to have had a ritual role. The pearl remained undisturbed and fully intact for 7,500 years.
The team’s discovery suggests that pearl oyster fishing first started in the Gulf Arabian peninsula and not in Japan.
"Gemologists and jewelers have popularized the idea that the oldest pearl in the world is the 5,000-year-old Jomon pearl from Japan,” the researchers wrote. “Discoveries made on the shores of southeastern Arabia show this to be untrue."
Natural pearls are extremely rare because they result from a set of accidental conditions controlled by nature. When a microscopic intruder or parasite enters a bivalve mollusk, the mollusk protects itself against the irritating invader by secreting layer upon layer of iridescent nacre to envelop it. Over time, this process produces a pearl.