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Did Stone Age beads found at 33 kya function as a “social safety net”?


The beads are fashioned from ostrich shells:

Some of these carefully crafted beads — excavated at two high-altitude rock-shelters in the African nation of Lesotho — were found to have originated more than 100 kilometers away, while others came from more than 300 kilometers away, say anthropological archaeologist Brian Stewart of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and his colleagues. Ages of the beads span nearly the last 33,000 years, the scientists report March 9 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences…

Stewart’s findings fit with a broader idea, supported by ancient DNA evidence, that different hunter-gatherer groups consisting mainly of in-laws and unrelated individuals have long maintained regional contacts that have benefits for all, says anthropologist Kim Hill of Arizona State University in Tempe, who did not participate in the new study (SN: 10/5/17).

Bruce Bower, “An ancient social safety net in Africa was built on beads” at ScienceNews

Paper. (paywall)

Ostrich egg beads have been found as early as 50,000 years ago, we learn. Most of the interesting linked article is speculation about how the beads were used, based on their possible uses, for example as a social network or safety net.

However the beads were used, the concept of beads as a medium of exchange, a record of treaties, or a social status marker involves abstraction. They represent an idea. Ideas surely became much more powerful when they were portable. They have a much longer and wider reach when they can be shared and embodied in something other than a given person’s brain.

Here’s the first author in 2012:

The craft is practised today:

See also: Can we talk? Language as the business end of consciousness

The most interesting part is the 'span' and 'persistence'. These folks have been passing along a constant skill from generation to generation for 33000 years. That's IMPRESSIVE. We can't even hold onto skills for 5 minutes before the next software update from Github makes them obsolete. polistra

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