Our ancestors exchanged gifts 33,000 years ago in Africa

Hyperaxion Mar 10, 2020

Prehistoric groups exchanged pendants made from ostrich eggshells to strengthen relationships and build trust between communities.

It’s not just you: 33,000 years ago people also enjoyed giving and receiving gifts to loved friends and family – at least that’s what a study published in PNAS indicates. According to the research, in prehistoric Africa it was common for members of different groups to give each other pendants made from ostrich eggshells.

(Credit: Brian Stewart/PNAS).

Experts already knew that hunter-gatherers who lived in the Kalahari Desert, in South Africa, maintained the practice of giving “souvenirs” to people from other groups who were experiencing difficulties. The idea, as historians explain, was to strengthen ties, using symbolic objects to ensure they could trust each other when necessary.

Social animals

What the researchers didn’t know was how old and widespread this practice was. Thanks to some pendants found in Lesotho, scholars were able to conclude that the idea of giving gifts to others was widely accepted in southern Africa at least 33,000 years ago.

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For Brian Stewart, assistant professor at the University of Michigan and co-author of the study, the discovery is proof that human beings are extremely social animals – something that is reflected even in hunter-gatherer attitudes for thousands of years. “Ostrich eggshell beads and the jewelry made from them basically acted as Stone Age versions of ‘likes’ on Facebook or Twitter, simultaneously reaffirming connections between people and showing others the status of those relationships,” said the researcher in a statement.

Hunter-gatherers who lived in the Kalahari Desert, in South Africa, had the practice of giving souvenirs to people from other groups who were experiencing difficulties.
Hunter-gatherers who lived in the Kalahari Desert, in South Africa, had the practice of giving souvenirs to people from other groups who were experiencing difficulties. (Credit: Brian Stewart / PNAS).

A prehistoric gift network

As the archaeologists explained, the practice was already known, but when they found ornaments made from ostrich eggshells in Lesotho, they realized that the exchange of gifts was much more common than previously thought. That’s because ostriches are uncommon in that region, and archaeologists have found no evidence that these ornaments were made there.

This led the team to suspect that people who lived in Lesotho received these objects from other individuals who, in turn, would have received them from a third party and so on, forming a “gift network”. To test the hypothesis, the specialists decided to analyze the chemical composition of the eggshells in search of evidence of the origin of this material.

The main "souvenir" exchanged between prehistoric groups were pendants made from ostrich eggshells.
The main “souvenir” exchanged between prehistoric groups were pendants made from ostrich eggshells. (Credit: Brian Stewart / PNAS).

According to the researchers, older rocks, like granite and gneiss, have more strontium than younger rocks, like basalt. In addition, when animals such as ostriches feed, debris fragments are ingested with the food and become part of their eggs. Thus, when the team analyzed the pendants made from eggshells, it was possible to find out which strontium isotope was more abundant in the artifacts, and then compare it to the soil of different regions.

After the analysis, the researchers found that almost 80% of the souvenirs found in Lesotho could not have originated from ostriches that lived in the region’s surroundings. “These ornaments have consistently come from long distances,” noted Stewart.

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Still, according to the study, some strontium isotopes are only found a thousand kilometers away from the site, which is remarkable for scientists. “The oldest bead in our sample had the third highest strontium isotope value, so it is also one of the most exotic,” recalled the expert.

Their findings also establish that these pendants were exchanged during a period of climatic turbulence, some 59 to 25,000 years ago – a time when strengthening relationships between hunter-gatherer groups could be essential for societies to survive. “These exchange networks could be used to obtain information about resources, landscape conditions, animals, plant foods, other people and perhaps partners in marriage,” said Stewart.

Thanks to some pendants found in Lesotho, scholars were able to conclude that the idea of giving gifts to others was widely accepted in southern Africa at least 33,000 years ago.
Thanks to some pendants found in Lesotho, scholars were able to conclude that the idea of giving gifts to others was widely accepted in southern Africa at least 33,000 years ago. (Credit: Brian Stewart / PNAS).

Related topics:

Prehistory Stone age

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