The study shows that ancient hunter-gatherers traded eggshell beads across a vast area of ​​Africa.

Unlike its modern electronic equivalents, this ancient social network used a much more prosaic medium. It was based on the exchange and trade of beads made from the shell of ostrich eggs – one of the oldest forms of personal adornment of mankind.

The study by scientists from Germany included the study of more than 1,500 of these beads, which were dug up in more than 30 sites in southern and eastern Africa. Careful analysis reveals that the people who made the beads still made and worn by hunter-gatherers in Africa exchanged them over vast distances, helping to share symbolic messages and strengthen alliances.

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

The study compared beads found at 31 locations in southern and eastern Africa over 3,000 km away. By comparing the outer diameter of the shell, the diameter of the holes inside and the thickness of the walls of the eggshell, scientists found that about 50,000 years ago, people in eastern and southern Africa began to make almost identical beads from ostrich scales.

However, these groups and communities were separated by vast distances, suggesting the existence of a social network stretching thousands of miles and connecting people in remote regions.

“The result is surprising, but the pattern is clear,” said another study author, Yiming Wang.

Ostrich egg shell beads are among the oldest forms of self-decoration found in the archaeological record, although they were not first adopted by Homo sapiens. Scientists believe that men and women began to smear themselves with reddish ocher about 200,000 years ago, and began wearing beads 75,000 years ago.

However, the jewelry industry did begin around 50,000 years ago in Africa, when the first beads were made from ostrich egg shells, the earliest standardized form of jewelry known to archaeologists. It was the world’s first “trinket” and its use represents one of humanity’s oldest cultural traditions, involving the expression of identity and relationships. According to Miller, “These tiny beads have the power to reveal big stories about our past.”

“Trinkets are valuable: they tell us something about the person who wore them. More bling in the archaeological record indicates more interactions. Trade trinkets tell us who was talking to whom,” explained archaeologist Michelle Langley of Griffith University in Queensland, Australia.

An important point about ostrich egg shell jewelry is that instead of relying on the natural size or shape of an item, people began to shape the shell directly and create opportunities for style variation to develop. The resulting samples gave researchers a path through which they could trace cultural connections.

The world’s first social network did not last long. About 33,000 years ago, the nature of wearing beads changed dramatically: they disappeared from South Africa, but survived in East Africa. Miller and Wang suggest that climate change was behind this, ending the oldest social network on the planet, albeit after 17,000 years.