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Yoruba Tribes - Were They Really Producing Powder Glass Beads Before Ghana?

The Krobo; a resourceful Ghanaian tribe responsible for the biggest African economic revival since the trade era, and allegedly purveyors of the powder glass-making art-form. Or were they? Browsing the sheer plethora of different powder glass bead types here at The Bead Chest, you'd need more than a keen analyst's eye to distinguish between them, and some of the old lapidiary beads that come from Yoruba. Some say it's impossible! The reason being that both Yoruba Powder Glass and Powder Glass Beads from the Krobo are created using the exact same cold casting methods.

But who came up with it first?

It's a bit of a “chicken or the egg” situation, since like most African trade bead mysteries, there is little historical evidence to back up the claim of either side. According to acclaimed African bead historian Kwesi Amanfrafo, there is literally nothing in the way of documentation to prove bead production existed in Ghana prior to 1950 – although they claim the revival to have started circa 1900, and were educated in the art by a tribe known as the “Ewe”.

The Yoruba on the other hand are widely known to be one of the largest in situe ethnic groups in West Africa, with land encompassing parts of Nigeria, as well as the Republic of Benin. Glass bead production within this region predates the Krobo efforts by as much as 300 years – however, how much of this utilized the cold-casting 'fritt and fire' method is debatable. Of the most prominent Yoruba beads are “kori stones”. These were made using the lapidiary technique, where glass that may or may not have been waste product was smelted en mass to form ingots. These would then be manipulated, cut or reshaped whilst hot, to create glass beads. As we know, the cold-casting technique involved the grinding of glass into powder, which was then fired over a course of several instances, to create molded glass beads.

Perhaps the best example of differing technique can be found within the collections of the British Museum, London, England. Here an extensive collection of cold-cast beads sourced from Nigeria have been accumulated over the last hundred years – and there's a distinct difference to those made from 1950 onward, to those over a Century old. The earliest spherical glass beads thought to date around 1860 are a hotchpotch of reworked glass, with piths and bubbles to suggest they were actually made from other old glass beads. The newer counterparts on the other hand, are far courser in visible texture suggesting the recycling of other glass waste such as bottles, is a fairly recent thing.

Having checked out the Yoruba Glass Beads alongside our popular Green Recycled Powder Glass Beads, the aesthetic differences are very apparent. The Ghana glass beads are smoother, more rounded and far better in finish. Check them out for yourself! Surely the ultimate indication, Ghana have had this down to a tee for at least a Century?