Study finds ancient hunter-gatherers traded eggshell beads over vast area 50,000 years ago to share symbolic messages and to strengthen alliances.
Clearly this is not a social network in the way we understand it today, but 50,000 years ago in southern and east Africa, this ancient web of social bonds spanning thousands of miles used a far more prosaic medium. It relied on the sharing and trading of beads made of ostrich eggshells – one of humanity’s oldest forms of personal adornment.
The research by scientists from the Max Planck Institute in Germany involved the study of more than 1,500 of these beads, which were dug up at more than 30 sites across the vast region. Careful analysis suggests that people who made the beads – which are still manufactured and worn by hunter-gatherers in Africa today – were exchanging them over vast distances, helping to share symbolic messages and to strengthen alliances.
These communities were separated by vast distances, which suggests the existence of a long-distance social network that stretched over thousands of miles, connecting people in far-flung regions. “The result is surprising, but the pattern is clear,” said one of the study’s authors.
Scientists believe men and women started daubing themselves with the reddish pigment ochre about 200,000 years ago, before starting to wear beads 75,000 years ago. However, the ornament industry really took off about 50,000 years ago in Africa, with the manufacture of the first ostrich eggshell beads – the earliest standardised form of jewellery known to archaeology. This was the world’s first “bling” and its use represents one of humanity’s longest-running cultural traditions, involving the expression of identity and relationships.