Tiny ostrich eggshell beads that tell the story of Africa’s past

You can tell a lot about a person by the things they wear, and this has likely been true throughout human history. The earliest kind of decoration was probably ochre, which we know humans have used for at least 200,000 years.

By 75,000 years ago, people begin wearing beads. Since that time, ornaments and other symbols have been central to the way we express our identities and signal our relationships. In fact, this is probably one of the things that make us human.

Ornament production really took off about 50,000 years ago, when we see the earliest standardised jewelry in the form of small disc beads made from ostrich eggshells. In Africa, ostrich eggshell beads are one of the most common types of archaeological artifacts, particularly from sites dated to the last 10,000 years. They are also found in smaller numbers throughout Asia where 12,000-year-old ostrich eggshell beads have been discovered in China.

Since ostrich eggshell bead jewelry is still produced today, this is one of the longest-running cultural traditions in the world.

But what can these beads tell us about the ancient peoples who made and wore them?

In a recently published paper, we analysed 1,200 ostrich eggshell beads from 22 sites in southern Africa and eight sites in eastern Africa. Although beads are found at many African archaeological sites, they tend to be overlooked in research. Many of the bead measurements for this study were taken from decades-old, unstudied collections and are being reported for the first time. We believe this research demonstrates the importance of studying existing museum collections and approaching old questions in new ways.

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