Africa's fascinating bead history predates the African Trade Bead era by over 75,000 years; the first known examples found in the Blombos Cave, on the South African coast (near Capetown) in 2004.
Archaeologist Chris Henshilwood uncovered a wealth of ancient artifacts, including the first known beads for decorative purpose – made from the shell of ostrich eggs.
African Beads Historical Evidence
Similar beads thought to be over 12,000 years old have been found within Kenya, Libya and Sudan adding evidence to the history of the Turkana people who once recognized such beads for their value as currency. Egg-shell beads would be presented to women as part of their dowry prior to marriage. It is also thought such bead-strands were exchanged for cattle and goods in the region.
Cowrie shell beads and bone Beads are thought to be among the first types of beads used for trade purposes within Africa, until the 4th Century B.C when glass beads found their way into Africa from Egypt and Western Europe. Evidence of the glass bead production which dominated the African economies for nearly 700 years has been found within both Egypt and South Africa, dating back to the 9th Century. These minuscule beads were woven into the opulent collars, head-dresses and robes worn by Royal family members, courtiers and those of nobility.
History of Beads in Africa: 4th Century
The history of beads in African is quite incredible, with various artifacts and locations serving as evidence of a rich history of African beads. Burial sites such as the Valley of The Kings have allowed us to uncover a significant wealth of jewelry and decorative artifacts which were made from glass. Glass beads also made their way into Africa from Portugal during the 4th Century, the unofficial beginning of Africa's booming trade era.
It is not until the 12th Century that we see real evidence of glass bead production within the notable manufacturing areas of today, such as Ghana, the Krobo, Ethiopia and Nigeria.
The methods used within this production are not dissimilar to those practiced today for Recycled Glass Bead production; where ground particles are compacted prior to firing. The early method is referred to as wet-core powder glass bead production and was a painstakingly slow process.
Such beads allowed tribesmen to ply trade with neighboring regions, but were predominantly used for rituals, rites of passage ceremonies and holistic healing.
African Beadwork History: 14th Century
From the 14th Century, explorers began landing upon the shores of South Africa bringing with them colorful glass beads to trade for the safe passage through regions – and eventually for the riches of this foreign land which included palm oil, fur and spices. The market for slaves is also thought to have developed during these early years, and would soon become fundamental in boosting Africa's regional economies.
The production of Africa's currency began to increase within Venice during the 1500's. Striped Chevrons were the most common product of this era, although Millefiori Beads found particular favor with African tribal chiefs during the close of the century. The Millefiori boom would last a further 400 years. Africa's “Golden Trade Era” stretches from 1700 to 1920; a period which saw the highest levels of trade and economy in history.
Venetian Trade Beads were often referred to by their pseudonym “slave beads” due to the high value they realized in exchange for slaves. Doughnut and Pineapple shaped Chevron Beads with colors range from 4-12 in number were among the most common, however pale Venetian Ghosts, King Chevrons and Elbow Millefiori Beads were also among the most prized.
Want to know more about the fascinating history behind African Trade Beads? Take a look at The Bead Chest's stunning collections of Fancy Venetian Beads and African Trade Beads, or read further titles in this series which provide fascinating facts about Africa's colorful bead economy.