Scientists discover the oldest social network in the world – ARTnews.com
Scientists have discovered what may be the world’s first social network, a chain of trade and communication that linked ancient humans across southern and eastern Africa around 50,000 years ago. The breakthrough was made possible by a trail of tiny artifacts: beads made from ostrich eggshells, one of the earliest forms of personal adornment.
Researchers based in Germany have studied more than 1,500 of these beads unearthed from 31 sites covering 1,800 miles of the African continent. Analysis of the pearls’ shell thickness and diameter revealed that hunter-gatherers had made them in “nearly identical” shape and style despite the large distances separating each community, suggesting a cohesive regional network. The study, published in Nature, suggested that beads were exchanged as symbols to strengthen alliances.
“It’s like following a trail of breadcrumbs,” said Jennifer Miller, study co-author and researcher at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena. the Guardian. “Pearls are clues, scattered across time and space, just waiting to be noticed.”
Ostrich eggshell beads, still made by indigenous African communities today, are among the oldest known forms of self-ornament in the archaeological record, with evidence of their use dating back is 75,000 years old. Scientists believe that the first type of decoration was probably ochre, a rust-colored clay pigment that has been used by humans for at least 200,000 years.
The study of self-decoration has helped reveal the cognitive abilities and social patterns of prehistoric humans. Eggshell jewelry crucially illustrates how and when humans began altering natural forms into a variety of shapes for aesthetic and practical purposes.
The route discovered by the researchers also helped scientists establish that a “patchwork of populations” in southern and eastern Africa were in communication. It remains to be seen whether the eggshells studied were directly traded or whether the know-how to make them was shared.
What is clear, however, is that the oldest social network on the planet has finally come crashing down. Around 33,000 years ago, beading disappeared from Southern Africa, but remained popular in East Africa. The authors propose that “environmental circumstances” caused the regional split.