Imagine travelling from New York City to Denver, CO., by foot. You’d have to cross rivers, mountains, dense forests, grasslands, and even a bit of desert. It takes more than 20 hours by car. By foot we’re talking weeks. And there would be no restaurants, hotels, or warm beds where you could rest come nightfall.
Most people would (with good reason) never undertake such a journey. But that was exactly the type of journey ancient Africans undertook 50,000 years ago when they connected the eastern and southern parts of the continent. At least that’s what a new study from the journal Nature suggests.
The two authors, Jennifer M. Miller and Yimin V. Wang, both from the Max Planck Institute in Germany, analyzed more than 1,500 beads made of ostrich eggshells, dating over 50,000 years, to reach that conclusion. It’s a startling one. Most of us imagine that humans 50,000 years ago lived in isolated bands of hunter gatherers, seldom seeing let alone communcating with another group. But that was clearly not the case.
Yet the style and size of the beads from the location in southern Africa have clear similarities with the ones from eastern Africa. Seeing as the beads appear approximately 10,000 years earlier in east of Africa than in the south, this suggests that the technique of bead making was taken up by people in the south. Not only the technique of making and using beads for different cultural practices, but also the stylization.
The chance that this is pure coincidence is dismal. After all, the similarities are consistent for a period stretching from 50,000 to 33,000 years ago. Even acknowledging the general lacklusterness of archaeological records, similarities over 17,000 years point towards something other than coincidence.
Climate change came in the way
This was millennia before modern humans arrived in Europe, the Americas, or Australia. And the evidence is hard to counter. But what was the nature of the contact? Was it simply trade, or did cultural, political, and other forms of contact occur? We don’t know. Other research will have to be conducted in order to find out.
But the study does show when connections broke down: 33,000 years ago.
Beads disappear from southern Africa around that time, and don’t return for the next 14,000 years. When they do, they are considerably smaller and don’t resemble their eastern counterparts at all. (Production continued in the east.)
Although it’s difficult to tell what led to this change, there’s a potential culprit: climate change. Around 33,000 years ago, rainfall increased severely in eastern Africa. This changed the vegetation, which must’ve affected the animals living in the region. If there’s a change in the biological make-up of a region, then people would have to adapt. Groups would need to follow the digestible nuts, fruits, and roots, and the animal prey they could hunt successfully. (Remember: This was 20,000 years prior to farming.) It’s likely that increased rainfall led to resettlement, which would’ve upended existing social networks.
Add to that melting glaciers in the Atlantic 30,000 years ago which led to flooding of the Zambezi River, effectively cutting off the eastern and southern part of Africa from each other.
The networks between east and south that began 50,000 years ago in Africa crumpled due to climate change. They would not return for the next 30,000 years, when herding once again bound east and west together.
It’s chilling to think about the way people must’ve reacted to these upheavals. Especially if you consider the rate at which the ice caps are melting once again.
Jennifer M. Miller, Yimin V. Wang. Ostrich eggshell beads reveal 50,000-year-old social network in Africa. Nature 601, 234–239 (2022).
Benjamin R. Collins, Amy Hatton. Beads reveal long-distance connections in early Africa. Nature 601, 199-200 (2022).
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