Scientists have uncovered the world’s oldest social network, a web of connections that flourished 50,000 years ago and stretched for thousands of miles across Africa.
But unlike its modern electronic equivalent, this ancient web of social bonds 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 in Germany involved the study of more than 1,500 of these beads, which were dug up at more than 30 sites across southern and east Africa. 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.
“It’s like following a trail of breadcrumbs,” said the study’s lead author, Jennifer Miller, of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in the city of Jena. “The beads are clues, scattered across time and space, just waiting to be noticed.”
The study, published in Nature last week, compared beads found at 31 sites in southern and eastern Africa, spanning more than 1,800 miles. By comparing the outside diameter of a shell, the diameter of the holes inside them, and the thickness of the walls of the eggshell, the scientists learned that about 50,000 years ago people in eastern and southern Africa started to make nearly identical beads out of ostrich eggs.
Yet these groups and 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 the study’s other author, Yiming Wang, who is also based at the Max Planck.
Ostrich eggshell beads are some of the oldest forms of self-decoration found in the archaeological record, although they were not the first to be adopted by Homo sapiens. 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. As Miller put it: “These tiny beads have the power to reveal big stories about our past.”
Or as archaeologist Michelle Langley of Griffith University in Queensland, Australia, has said: “Bling is valuable: it tells us something about the person who wore it. More bling in the archaeological record indicates more interactions. Traded bling tells us who was talking to whom.”
The crucial point about ostrich eggshell jewellery is, instead of relying on an item’s natural size or shape, humans began to shape the shells directly and create opportunities for variations in style to develop. The resulting patterns gave the researchers a route through which they could trace cultural connections, though it is unclear if the ostrich eggshell beads studied by Miller and Wang were traded between groups or if it was the knowledge of how to manufacture them that was exchanged. Most evidence points to the latter.
The world’s first social network did not last. About 33,000 years ago, the pattern of bead-wearing abruptly changed: they disappeared from southern Africa while continuing in east Africa. Miller and Wang suggest climatic changes lay behind this, bringing an end to the planet’s oldest social network – albeit after 17,000 years.