Scientists have discovered the world’s oldest social network, a web of links that spanned thousands of kilometers across Africa 50,000 years ago.
This old web of social relationships, unlike its current electronic version, used a far more mundane medium. It was based on the sharing and trade of ostrich eggshell beads, which are one of the world’s oldest forms of personal ornamentation.
Scientists from Germany studied more than 1,500 of these beads, which were discovered in more than 30 locations across southern and eastern Africa.
The findings revealed that the individuals who created the beads – which are still made and worn by hunter-gatherers in Africa today – were exchanging them over long distances, to help transmit symbolic messages and reinforce alliances by the people who crafted them.
“It’s like following a trail of breadcrumbs,” says the study’s lead author, Jennifer Miller. “The beads are clues, scattered across time and space, just waiting to be noticed.”
The study, which was published in Nature in December 2021, compared beads discovered across 1,800 kilometres in southern and eastern Africa. Scientists discovered that some 50,000 years ago, people in eastern and southern Africa began making virtually similar beads out of ostrich eggs by measuring the exterior diameter of a shell, the diameter of the holes inside it, and the thickness of the eggshell walls.
Despite the fact that these groups and communities were separated by huge distances, the existence of a long-distance social network that connected people in far-flung locations shows the presence of long social network that stretched over thousands of miles.
“The result is surprising, but the pattern is clear,” adds the study’s other author, Yiming Wang.
Although they were not the first to be adopted by Homo sapiens, ostrich eggshell beads are among the oldest kinds of self-decoration discovered in the archaeological record. Men and women began daubing themselves with the reddish color ochre around 200,000 years ago, according to scientists, before beginning to wear beads 75,000 years ago.
In fact, the first ostrich eggshell beads were made about 50,000 years ago in Africa, and they were the first type of jewelry that was made in a consistent way. This was the first “bling” in the world, and its use reflects one of humanity’s oldest cultural practices, involving the expression of identity and connections.
As Miller put it: “These tiny beads have the power to reveal big stories about our past.”
“Bling is valuable: it tells us something about the person who wore it,” says archaeologist Michelle Langley of Griffith University in Queensland, Australia, adding, “More bling in the archaeological record indicates more interactions. Traded bling tells us who was talking to whom.”
The most important aspect of ostrich eggshell jewelry is that, rather than depending on an item’s inherent size or shape, people began to mold the shells directly, allowing for stylistic differences to emerge. The researchers were able to trace cultural ties thanks to the resulting patterns, albeit it’s unclear if the ostrich eggshell beads Miller and Wang analyzed were transferred between groups or if knowledge of how to make them was exchanged. The majority of data support the latter.
The first social network in the world did not last long. The pattern of bead-wearing dramatically shifted around 33,000 years ago, with bead-wearing disappearing from southern Africa while continuing in east Africa. Miller and Wang believe that climate changes are to blame, since the planet’s oldest social network has come to an end after 17,000 years.
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