A 50,000-Year-Old Social Network

Study finds ancient hunter-gatherers traded eggshell beads over vast area.

Scientists have uncovered the world’s oldest social network, a web of connections that flourished 50,000 years ago and stretched for thousands of miles across Africa.

But unlike its modern electronic equivalent, this ancient web of social bonds used a far more prosaic medium. It relied on the sharing and trading of beads made of ostrich eggshells – one of humanity’s oldest forms of personal adornment.

The research by scientists in Germany involved the study of more than 1,500 of these beads, which were dug up at more than 30 sites across southern and east Africa. Careful analysis suggests that people who made the beads – which are still manufactured and worn by hunter-gatherers in Africa today – were exchanging them over vast distances, helping to share symbolic messages and to strengthen alliances.

“It’s like following a trail of breadcrumbs,” said the study’s lead author, Jennifer Miller, of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in the city of Jena. “The beads are clues, scattered across time and space, just waiting to be noticed.”

The study, published in Nature last week, compared beads found at 31 sites in southern and eastern Africa, spanning more than 1,800 miles. By comparing the outside diameter of a shell, the diameter of the holes inside them, and the thickness of the walls of the eggshell, the scientists learned that about 50,000 years ago people in eastern and southern Africa started to make nearly identical beads out of ostrich eggs.

Yet these groups and communities were separated by vast distances, which suggests the existence of a long-distance social network that stretched over thousands of miles, connecting people in far-flung regions. “The result is surprising, but the pattern is clear,” said the study’s other author, Yiming Wang, who is also based at the Max Planck.

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