Archaeology breakthrough: African ostrich eggs relics redefine ancient human history
SCIENTISTS have uncovered 10,000 years of human cultural interaction within ancient Africa in a groundbreaking new study.
Researchers have intricately linked the development of ostrich eggs used as jewelery to reveal some 10,000 years of human cultural interaction across Africa in pre-history times. Ostrich eggshell beads are some of the oldest ornaments made by humans, being found to date back at least 50,000 years ago in Arica.
Existing research conducted in South Africa has shown that the beads began to increase in size around 2,000 years ago.
This occurred when herding populations first entered the region.
In the newest study, researchers Jennifer Miller and Elizabeth Sawchuk used the data of increasing size to link to increasing interaction between different groups of peoples – most of which had never before met.
The nature of the link has never before been seen; a groundbreaking first for both archaeology and studies of ancient sociology.
The eggs reveal 10,000 years of cross-cultural interaction
Some of the eggs were found in eastern Africa, where the famous Dragon Blood Tree rests off the coa
Researchers recorded the diameters of 1,200 ostrich eggshell beads unearthed from 30 sites in Africa dating back to around 10,000 years.
Many of the bead measurements were taken from existing, decades-old unstudied collections and so were being reported for the first time.
The new data extends to the researchers the scope for study, increasing the published bead diameter measurements from 100 to over 1,000, and reveals new trends that oppose longstanding beliefs.
These ostrich eggshell beads reflect different responses to the introduction of herding between eastern and southern Africa.
Bead styles in southern Africa were found to have changed in design, adopting a never before seen tailored take.
Yet, despite their renewal, the older bead styles remained and were not directly replaced by the updated versions.
Contrasting were the beads in eastern Africa that, despite introduction of new herders, kept their traditional style.
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.
Ms Miller, lead author of the new paper, said: “These beads are symbols that were made by hunter-gatherers from both regions for more than 40,000 years.
“So changes—or lack thereof—in these symbols tells us how these communities responded to cultural contact and economic change.”
This significance of the introduction of new herder groups may be more nuanced than what was initially thought, with the new styles having crossed cultural borders.
New domesticated animals were likely to have been introduced to separate groups, but, archaeological records suggests the incoming influence did not overwhelm existing traditions.
The traditional, existing traditions did not change, rather incorporating new trends with their own styles.
This is significant, as it suggests fears of traditions and heritage dying out as a result of cultural assimilation – for example, migration into countries – may be unfounded.
In eastern Africa, studied here for the first time, there was no apparent change in bead style with the arrival of herding groups from the north
Researchers say this may be because the foragers adopted herding while retaining their bead-making traditions.
Ostrich eggshell beads reveal 10,000 years of cultural interaction across Africa
- November 27, 2019
- Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History
- Researchers present an expanded analysis of African ostrich eggshell beads, testing the hypothesis that larger beads signal the arrival of herders. The data reveals a more nuanced interpretation that provides greater insight into the history of economic change and cultural contact.
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. Previous research in southern Africa has shown that the beads increase in size about 2,000 years ago, when herding populations first enter the region. In the current study, researchers Jennifer Miller and Elizabeth Sawchuk investigate this idea using increased data and evaluate the hypothesis in a new region where it has never before been tested.
Review of old ideas, analysis of old collections
To conduct their study, the researchers recorded the diameters of 1,200 ostrich eggshell beads unearthed from 30 sites in Africa dating to the last 10,000 years. Many of these bead measurements were taken from decades-old unstudied collections, and so are being reported here for the first time. This new data increases the published bead diameter measurements from less than 100 to over 1,000, and reveals new trends that oppose longstanding beliefs.
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.”
Ostrich eggshell beads tell the story of ancient interaction
The story told by ostrich eggshell beads is more nuanced than previously believed. Contact with outside groups of herders likely introduced new bead styles along with domesticated animals, but the archaeological record suggests the incoming influence did not overwhelm existing local traditions. The existing customs were not replaced with new ones; rather they continued and incorporated some of the new elements.
In eastern Africa, studied here for the first time, there was no apparent change in bead style with the arrival of herding groups from the north. This may be because local foragers adopted herding while retaining their bead-making traditions, because migrant herders possessed similar traditions prior to contact, and/or because incoming herders adopted local styles. “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 researchers hope that this work inspires a renewed interest into ostrich eggshell beads, and recommend that future studies present individual bead diameters rather than a single average of many. Future research should also investigate questions related to manufacture, chemical identification, and the effects of taphonomic processes and wear on bead diameter. “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.”
Materials provided by Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.