The surprising origins and history of gift giving among early men in Lesotho

Stephen Nartey November 14, 2022
Ostrich eggshell beads. Photo: Nature

Have you wondered how prehistoric men showed appreciation 33,000 years ago? In the Southern African nation of Lesotho, the early men there used beads as a form of gift to show their gratitude and strengthen existing bonds among ethnic groups. 

The use of beads may have been of immense value to the people and was used as a bridge to build goodwill and form cultural partnerships, as reported by Science News. Anthropological archaeologist of the University of Michigan Brian Stewart, who made this discovery with his team, explained that the relationship possibly started with the offering of food by those who resided in the hilly region to those who were in distress in the low-lying areas of Lesotho. 

The researchers were not able to establish the main objective of giving beads as a gift but guessed that ostrich eggshell beads were given in exchange as a form of goodwill expressed by an ethnic group. This relationship, according to the researchers, may have started with dwellers in the low-lying areas towards the end of the Stone Age. 

Stewart said hunter-gatherers in the recent past have practiced the art of gift-giving to strengthen some sort of bilateral relationship. The geographical location of the low-lying areas made it easy for the farming and existence of ostriches. On the hilly parts, it was near impossible for ostriches to survive. The low-lying dwellers capitalized on the presence of the ostriches to make beads out of their eggshells. 

The beads were then offered to those in the hilly parts of Lesotho and were thought to be of importance to them because of their absence where they reside. The culture of giving beads as gifts consolidated the relationships among these groups for as long as tens of thousands of years longer than any partnerships to have existed. 

The report which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences said the archaeologists dug out the beads from the rock shelters of Lesotho. An archaeologist with the University of Oxford, Nick Barton, indicated that there is the possibility the early men traveled long distances with the ostrich eggshells to neighboring communities, hence, the diffusion of such relics.

He explained that more effort will be required for the dwellers on the low-lying to gather ostrich shells to craft beads. He said they also gathered sea shells for bead making. He deduced that the art of manufacturing beads from these raw materials may have begun on the east coast. 

The researchers attributed the giving of gifts to the periodic drought in the low-lying areas. To find a way out, the inhabitants established a cooperation with the high landers where they gave them food in exchange for beads. 

The low-lying areas of the Southern African nation have been known to experience poor climatic conditions with fewer drops of rain. This informed the good relationship the early men built and sustained over 200,000 years ago or more. 

With time, the exigencies of time and the economic situation compelled them to form and maintain these partnerships for the benefit of their survival.

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