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.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
“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.
Ostrich eggshell beads are some of the oldest forms of self-decoration found in the archaeological record, although they were not the first to be adopted by Homo sapiens. Scientists believe men and women started daubing themselves with the reddish pigment ocher about 200,000 years ago, before starting to wear beads 75,000 years ago.
However, the ornament industry really took off about 50,000 years ago in Africa, with the manufacture of the first ostrich eggshell beads — the earliest standardized form of jewelery known to archeology. This was the world’s first “bling” and its use represents one of humanity’s longest-running cultural traditions, involving the expression of identity and relationships. As Miller put it: “These tiny beads have the power to reveal big stories about our past.”
Or as archaeologist Michelle Langley of Griffith University in Queensland, Australia, has said: “Bling is valuable: it tells us something about the person who wore it. More bling in the archaeological record indicates more interactions. Traded bling tells us who was talking to whom.”
The crucial point about ostrich eggshell jewelery is, instead of relying on an item’s natural size or shape, humans began to shape the shells directly and create opportunities for variations in style to develop. The resulting patterns gave the researchers a route through which they could trace cultural connections, though it is unclear if the ostrich eggshell beads studied by Miller and Wang were traded between groups or if it was the knowledge of how to manufacture them that was exchanged. Most evidence points to the latter.
The world’s first social network did not last. About 33,000 years ago, the pattern of bead-wearing abruptly changed: they disappeared from southern Africa while continuing in east Africa. Miller and Wang suggest climatic changes lay behind this, bringing an end to the planet’s oldest social network — albeit after 17,000 years.
May 23 to May 29 After holding out for seven years, more than 250 Yunlin-based resistance fighters were finally persuaded to surrender in six separate ceremonies on May 25, 1902. The Japanese had subdued most of the Han Taiwanese within six months of their arrival in 1895, but intermittent unrest continued — in Yunlin, the Tieguoshan (鐵國山) guerillas caused the new regime much headache through at least 1901. These surrender ceremonies were common and usually conducted peacefully, but the Japanese had different plans for these troublemakers. Once the event concluded, they gunned down every single attendee with machine guns. Only Chien Shui-shou
The toll rolls on. A gunman walks into a place where humans are peacefully gathering and slaughters them for a militantly-avowed racially-based nationalism, presented in a long manifesto. We are quickly told that the gunman was mentally ill. Obviously — who but a madman could do such a thing? The newspapers dust off one of their “education of a killer” pieces, change the names and run another 1,200 words useful only to those cultivating such killers. The latest of these attacks, on Taiwanese churchgoers in Laguna, California, has spurred much discussion of the long record of Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) violence
Producing the world’s meat has rarely been this expensive. In southern Calgary, Don Lowe, who’s been a cattle rancher for 40 years, had hoped to expand his herd of 800 beef cows this year, but with feed prices skyrocketing, he’s struggling to hang on to the animals he has. Across the ocean in East Yorkshire, England, pig farmer Kate Moore says the upkeep of her 32,000-strong herd is becoming exceedingly hard. “It’s horrendous,” said Moore, who is now is chalking up a loss of about ￡60 (US$75) per animal because of the soaring cost of feeding and taking care of them. “There’s
Household appliances contain plastic components. Medical devices made of sterile plastic, such as disposable syringes and plasma bags, are indispensable to 21st-century healthcare. By preventing bruising and contamination, plastic packaging reduces food waste. Plastic cups and dishes are less fragile than ceramic tableware. PVC pipes and window frames have made house-building cheaper. But not everyone who benefits from this wonder material knows that plastics production requires huge amounts of energy, most of which is generated by burning fossil fuels. Plastics plants are also a source of harmful pollutants including benzene. Nor do all consumers appreciate the extent to which plastic