30,000 years ago, hunter-gatherers didn’t need Facebook — they had ostrich egg beads

Tens of thousands of years ago, hunter-gatherers in sub-Saharan Africa had their own version of Facebook “likes.” Only they were a lot less fleeting — because they were solid beads made out of ostrich eggshells. 

This kind of gift-giving network is still used today in some parts of the continent. But a new study has found that 30,000 years ago, these beads were being sent vast istances, and they were imperative for survival.

The beads in question were found in Lesotho, an independent state surrounded by South Africa.

The findings were published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 

Brian Stewart is an archeologist and an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan. He spoke to As It Happens guest host Dave Seglins about the beads and what they tell us about early social networks. Here is part of their conversation.

Can you describe these beads that you found in Lesotho?

They’re exceptionally tiny. Everyone’s familiar with the breakfast cereal Cheerios. Well, you know, from the photos they look like they’re about the size of a Cheerio. But actually these beads, mostly, would fit into the hole of a Cheerio.

They’re between three and five millimetres in diameter. So they’re just tiny, tiny, little things.

The beads are made from polished fragments of ostrich eggshells and Stewart says they are smaller than a Cheerio. ( John Klausmeyer, Yuchao Zhao and Brian Stewart)

You’ve described these beads saying that they’re akin to a Facebook “like.” What do you mean by that?

These beads are effectively a social currency. They have no monetary value. But what they do is they allow you to accrue social capital. They’re exchanged in these friendship networks. They’re exchanged over very close kin, for instance, or friends within your campsite, or within your group.

And then, most people also have exchange partners that are located at various distances, including really far distances. And so these things are basically advertising to people … your social relationships. And the more beadwork you have, and the more lavish and beautiful it is, the more people like you, basically.

So in some ways it’s similar to a Facebook “like” and it resonates with Facebook and social media because, as I said, a lot of these beads, we know from our study, were moving really quite long distances, and they do certainly in modern times.

They’re not entirely new and you say that they’re still used today. So what is so special about where these specific beads were found?

Ostriches, we know, occur all throughout Africa, except for a couple areas — you know, densely forested areas like in central Africa, high mountain areas like Ethiopia, or where I work in Lesotho in southern Africa.

So when we found these beads there, you know, this is in a place where ostriches would not typically live. And so it became kind of immediately clear to us that these beads were probably coming from far away and that’s what we were trying to test.

The 30,000-year-old beads were found in Lesotho, an independent state surrounded by South Africa, which is typically not a region where ostriches are found. (Brian Stewart)

And what kind of conclusion have you come to as to how far these beads have travelled? 

It looks from their chemical signature, which we tried to match to the regional geology, like the ostriches that laid the eggs from which these beads were made were living at distances which were really quite stunning.

At least 80 per cent of our sample was coming from over 100 kilometres away, and 20 per cent was coming from even further than that, including a fraction of about 10 per cent, which was coming from over 325 kilometres away — and that’s a minimum. 

So how did they get to Lesotho?

With these kind of distances, and considering they’re beads, I think we can probably conclude that these were exchanged between groups. And it’s not like, you know, somebody from one group was walking 400 kilometres and exchanging with someone from another group.

A bead goes to another group, let’s say 50 kilometres away, 40 kilometres away. That person keeps it for a while and then re-gifts it to somebody else that’s even further away. And so on and so forth down the chain.

Stewart says the beads were also useful for tracking ecological patterns and other vital information. (John Klausmeyer, Yuchao Zhao and Brian Stewart)

So what does all of this tell you about how important it would have been thousands of years ago for people to have this kind of connection and social currency from one group to another?

These things basically guarantee you access to your exchange partners’ territory in case your own territory has some kind of a problem ecologically. If there’s a big drought or some other issue and you suddenly don’t have food, you can take your family and you can move into the territory — even if it’s very far away — of your trading partner.

And what that does is create this kind of blanket or web of insurance networks, insurance policies, that spread across the landscape and allows habitation of really volatile, difficult environments.

So by looking at all of this and these beads, what are the lessons for today?

I think we should never underestimate how ingenious we are as a species at being environmentally adaptable. 

And that’s great. But we have to, at the same time, be very careful and not sit back on our laurels and, for instance, let the planet … go to hell in terms of climate change — because we’re no longer highly mobile hunter-gatherers who can just pack up and go somewhere else when things go south.

So, on the one hand, it’s encouraging. And on the other hand, I think it’s a warning that we need to be a little more careful with our planet.

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