Scientists have discovered what they believe to be a 50,000-year-old social network, possibly the first in the world, thanks to Stone Age jewels scattered across southern and eastern Africa.
Humans are thought to have started wearing beads around 75,000 years ago, making them one of the earliest forms of human adornment.
For a study recently published in the journal Nature, researchers at the Max Planck Institute examined more than 1,500 ancient pearls excavated at 31 sites in a 1,800-mile region and found that, despite disparities in communities, they produced nearly identical donut-shaped ostrich shell pearls, often with the same thickness and diameter.
“People created them to communicate symbolic messages, the way we might wear a wedding ring today, to indicate something about social status, wealth or position in society,” Jennifer Miller, co-author of the study, told CNN.
The similarities in the beads from different areas suggest a coherent social network that spans a great distance, linking the south of the continent to the east. The beads may have been exchanged between groups as a token of alliance or the trend may have spread from one community to another.
“Maybe people would see this new thing that people were wearing or doing and they would think, ‘Oh, that’s so cool.’ And then he imitated it, ”Miller added, noting that this was the first cultural evidence of contact between these distant settlements. “It is astonishing that these people, who lived 40,000 to 50,000 years ago, had some sort of social network that spread over such a long distance.”
Evidence of this social network disappears about 33,000 years ago, when the beads appear to have died out in the south. (The practice of bead-making reappears again 19,000 years ago.) At that time, there was a drought in East Africa as the tropical rain belt moved south, potentially causing flooding that could have disrupted communication between the regions.
“Through this combination of paleoenvironmental proxies, climate models and archaeological data, we can see the connection between climate change and cultural behavior,” Miller co-author Yiming Wang told Tech Explorist.
Studying pearls further, experts hope, will help us understand the social dynamics in Africa during the late Pleistocene, from about 126,000 to 11,700 years ago.
“It’s like following a trail of bread crumbs,” Miller told a Guardian. “The beads are clues, scattered across time and space, just waiting to be noticed.”
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