The oldest jewelry ever discovered was found in a cave in South Africa and is believed to be over 74,000 years old. This knowledge spread across the continent, and archeological finds in Libya from around 12,000 years ago show the continued mastery of the craft as it evolved throughout the ages.
The cultural significance of beadwork spread to ancient Egypt by 1500 BC. By the 1400s, this beadwork was often accepted as currency with Muslim and Christian traders, and the ornamental, ritual, religious, and ceremonial values of the craft made the beads highly valued possessions. Unfortunately, such beadwork was even commonly used as currency for the slave trade, as powerful tribes captured weaker ones to fuel economic expansion in the new world.
African Beads Today
Today, African beads for jewelry making are more than just decorative: they are imbued with rich cultural and historical significance. Africa is huge — larger than the US, China, India, and most of Western Europe combined — and the Sahara Desert alone is the size of the continental United States. It should come as no surprise, then, that there are a great many different types of African beadwork jewelry, each distinct across hundreds if not thousands of unique cultures.
Some of the more commonly known styles of beadwork from the Masai tribe, for example, make use of beaded jewelry to represent status and tribal hierarchy based on the colors and layouts of the beadwork. The Masai women would treat their beaded jewelry as women in Europe would treat their dresses: as beautiful works of art used at important moments in life that were (and still are) passed down across generations. In Kenya and Uganda, the women of the Pokot tribe are widely recognized for wearing broad-beaded necklaces with distinct collars, while the Yoruba kings of Nigeria wore traditional beaded crowns of astounding complexity.
The Significance of African Beads
African trade beads can be made from many different materials, ranging from bone and wood to elephant tusks, ostrich eggshells, and gold. For spiritual significance, the beadwork might be threaded with elephant hair: in Sub-Saharan Africa, local legends mention elephant hair bracelets as being tokens that would protect the wearer from harm and illness and simultaneously bless them with good fortune. The number of loops on African trade beadwork might symbolize the wearer's personality and what they hold dear while promoting a balance between people and nature. Depending on the availability of various materials, these trade beads are made to display wealth, marital status, power, personality, and even one's connection with the land
Today, African beaded jewelry helps employ local women from these tribes. Ethnic beads for jewelry making have a rich tradition and heritage. These beautiful works represent a stunning example of how art connects us with our shared cultural past and heritage.