A 50,000-Year-Old Fashion Statement Could Be One of the World’s Oldest Social Networks

Nearly identical beads carved from ostrich eggshells, found over a large region of Africa, might have been a first in cool trends

several necklaces of ostrich beads
Scientists studied more than 1,500 beads made from ostrich egg shells from across 31 sites in Africa, and found that they were nearly identitical in shape and size, suggesting an early form of social networking.  via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists studying ostrich eggshells carved into beads in Africa 50,000 years ago believe they may have been part of the human species’ first social network, reports Katie Hunt for CNN.

For the past decade, researchers examined some 1,500 ancient beads excavated from 31 sites across eastern and southern sections of Africa and found the artifacts were nearly identical in shape, size and style, per CNN.

Study co-authors Jennifer Miller and Yiming Wang of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany published their research in December in the journal Nature. Their findings show that the oldest beads came from East Africa, and likely spread south across the continent from that point.

“Based on what we’re seeing, it looks like a single origin that spread out from that one region, sharing the same style,” Miller tells CNN. “Possibly people would have seen this new thing that people were wearing or making and thought, ‘Oh, that’s so cool.’ And then mimicked it.”

The scientists conclude that the donut-shaped beads made from ostrich shells—an early form of personal adornment—were traded and copied by hunter-gather groups across Africa, reports Robin McKie for the Guardian.

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Archaeologists say the ostrich bead trend continued for more than 20,000 years, and traveled more than 1,800 miles between groups of people in southern and eastern Africa. Jennifer Miller

Miller and Wang compared bead characteristics—including total diameter, aperture diameter and shell thickness—across an 1,800-mile range dating from 50,000 to 33,000 years ago. The size and style of manufacture were nearly indistinguishable, suggesting a long-distance connection between the people of east and south Africa, according to Sarah Cascone of Artnet News.

“The result is surprising, but the pattern is clear,” Wang says in the statement. “Throughout the 50,000 years we examined, this is the only time period that the bead characteristics are the same.”

Ancient humans began wearing beads about 75,000 years ago as a way to express identity and define relationships, reports the Guardian. Scientists say the trend seems to have become increasingly popular about 50,000 years ago—the earliest date examined in the study.

“People made them to communicate symbolic messages, the way that today we might wear a wedding ring, to indicate something about social status, wealth or position in society,” Miller tells CNN.

The researchers studied the use of ostrich eggshells as beads to about 33,000 years ago, when the trend appears to have tapered off in the south, yet remained in the east, per Artnet News. The disruption may have occurred because of climate change.

According to the study, a major drought struck eastern Africa about that time, shifting the tropical rain belt to the south, possibly causing extensive flooding that interrupted communication between the two regions. Bead-making reappears in the regions in a different style about 19,000 years ago, per CNN.

“Through this combination of paleoenvironmental proxies, climate models and archaeological data, we can see the connection between climate change and cultural behavior,” Wang tells Tech Explorist.

Miller and Wang say they were surprised by the results of their study after realizing that ancient civilizations had maintained connections over a large region of Africa long before modern transportation.

“It’s kind of mind-boggling that these people, who lived 40,000 to 50,000 years ago, would have had some kind of social network that spread over such a long distance,” Miller tells CNN.

“These tiny beads have the power to reveal big stories about our past,” says Miller in the statement. “We encourage other researchers to build upon this database, and continue exploring evidence for cultural connection in new regions.”