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

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.

…”In the modern world, migration, cultural contact, and economic change often create tension,” says Sawchuk, “ancient peoples experienced these situations too, and the patterns in cultural objects like ostrich eggshell beads give us a chance to study how they navigated these experiences.”

…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.”

…This study shows that examining old collections can generate important findings without new excavation,” says Miller, “and we hope that future studies will take advantage of the wealth of artifacts that have been excavated but not yet studied.”

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


Stone-age ‘likes’: Study establishes eggshell beads exchanged over 30,000 years

Lesotho is a small country of mountain ranges and rivers. It has the highest average of elevation in the continent and would have been a formidable place for hunter-gatherers to live, Stewart says. But the fresh water coursing through the country and belts of resources, stratified by the region’s elevation, provided protection against swings in climate for those who lived there, as early as 85,000 years ago.

…In Lesotho, archeologists began finding small ornaments made of ostrich eggshell. But ostriches don’t typically live in that environment, and the archeologists didn’t find evidence of those ornaments being made in that region—no fragments of unworked eggshell, or beads in various stages of production.

So when archeologists began discovering eggshell beads without evidence of production, they suspected the beads arrived in Lesotho through these exchange networks.

…Brian Stewart and colleagues establish that the practice of exchanging these ornaments over long distances spans a much longer period of time than previously thought.

…”These ornaments were consistently coming from very long distances,” Stewart said. “The oldest bead in our sample had the third highest strontium isotope value, so it is also one of the most exotic.”

Stewart found that some beads could not have come from closer than 325 kilometers from Lesotho, and may have been made as far as 1,000 kilometers away. His findings also establish that these beads were exchanged during a time of climactic upheaval, about 59 to 25 thousand years ago. Using these beads to establish relationships between hunter-gatherer groups ensured one group access to others’ resources when a region’s weather took a turn for the worse.

…”These exchange networks could be used for information on resources, the condition of landscapes, of animals, plant foods, other people and perhaps marriage partners.”

Stone-age ‘likes’: Study establishes eggshell beads exchanged over 30,000 years


The ‘Ghost’ of an Unknown Human Species Has Been Found in West Africans Living Today

It is well-known that people from Europe and Asia have traces of Neanderthals and Denisovans in their DNA. These are markers from where early modern humans interbred with other hominin species, producing children that inherited genes from both. 

…Neanderthals and Denisovans bred with modern humans that had already left Africa, the birthplace of modern man. As a result, people in Africa have less genetic input from Denisovans and Neanderthals.

“Results strongly support that an African archaic (ghost) lineage that diverged from modern humans slightly before Neanderthals and Denisovans, perhaps 600,000 years ago, met and interbred with the ancestors of West African populations,” he told Newsweek. “Interestingly, this might have happened even before the split between African and non-African populations, whereby global human groups might carry ancestry from this ghost lineage.

“This work sheds light on the complex patterns of human evolution, where a simple narrative does not conform to the data. The picture will only get more complex, especially when more work is done in Africa, the birthplace of humanity.”

The ‘Ghost’ of an Unknown Human Species Has Been Found in West Africans Living Today