Archaeologist Richard Klein, a Stanford University professor, takes the dawn-of-a-new-culture discussion in an exciting direction. In a Stanford Magazine article, Klein disagreed that upheavals like the Russian and French Revolutions, or the construction of the first cities, or even the introduction of the internal-combustion engine effected the greatest social changes. Klein contends the most influential revolution occurred in East Africa roughly 45,000 years ago. He suggests that if beads were among humanity’s first symbols, they represent one of the most important revolutions in our species career – the dawning of modern behavior.
Beads are my most favorite medium and one of the many reasons I’ve collaborated on an upcoming project with Monkeybiz, a non-profit bead collective in Cape Town, South Africa, dedicated to reviving the tradition of African beadwork. Traditionally beads through the ages were used not only to adorn the body, but as a measure of value in ritual and economic exchange between locals and foreigners. In traditional rituals, a fine bead necklace or beaded piece is treasured because it is thought to impart spiritual energy. I’ve learnt too that all colors used are invested with meaning – pink denotes poverty and the use of pink beads in a community could mean: “You are wasting your money and have no cows to pay for my lobola (bride price, traditionally settled with heads of cattle). You do not love me!” These messages are encoded on a huge range of artifacts including this chair I found on on my travels which took craftsmen six month to make in Nigeria. I’m still trying to decipher the meaning, but isn’t it astounding?