Ostrich eggshell beads reveal 10,000 years of cultural interaction across Africa

Ostrich Egg Shell Beads

Ostrich eggshell beads are some of the oldest ornaments made by humankind, and they can be found dating back at least 50,000 years in Africa. Previous research in southern Africa has shown that the beads increase in size about 2,000 years ago, when herding populations first enter the region. In the current study, researchers Jennifer Miller and Elizabeth Sawchuk investigate this idea using increased data and evaluate the hypothesis in a new region where it has never before been tested.

Review of old ideas, analysis of old collections

To conduct their study, the researchers recorded the diameters of 1,200 ostrich eggshell beads unearthed from 30 sites in Africa dating to the last 10,000 years. Many of these bead measurements were taken from decades-old unstudied collections, and so are being reported here for the first time. This new data increases the published bead diameter measurements from less than 100 to over 1,000, and reveals new trends that oppose longstanding beliefs.

The ostrich eggshell beads reflect different responses to the introduction of herding between eastern and southern Africa. In southern Africa, new bead styles appear alongside signs of herding, but do not replace the existing forager bead traditions. On the other hand, beads from the eastern Africa sites showed no change in style with the introduction of herding. Although eastern African bead sizes are consistently larger than those from southern Africa, the larger southern African herder beads fall within the eastern African forager size range, hinting at contact between these regions as herding spread. “These beads are symbols that were made by hunter-gatherers from both regions for more than 40,000 years,” says lead author Jennifer Miller, “so changes — or lack thereof — in these symbols tells us how these communities responded to cultural contact and economic change.”

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