The oldest African beads are made from ostrich egg shell and were discovered in the Enkapune Ya Muto rock shelter in the Rift Valley region of Kenya. These beads have been dated to 37,000-39,900 years old, and they comprise 13 complete beads, 12 preforms and 593 shell fragments. It is believed that each bead was made individually and not through the heishi technique of bead making. While these beads are believed to have symbolized solidarity in ancient Bushmen society, today you can simply enjoy their beauty by wearing them as a necklace. Making a necklace from ostrich egg shell beads will involve drilling the beads to enable stringing; and thereafter grinding them along a stone to smooth them on the edge.
African trade beads came about as a result of the need for traders along the route between Europe and Africa for a currency to trade with the Africans. Beads fitted here as the most appropriate medium of exchange due to the affinity that African people had for various types of beads. The trade beads were therefore used for purposes of battering goods of value from the peoples of Africa such as ivory, gold, and palm oil.
The history of African trade beads dates as far back as the fifteenth century with the coming of the Portuguese. Upon arrival in West Africa, the Portuguese discovered just how important beads were to the African people. The beads they found were crafted out of various objects and materials including gold, iron, ivory, organic objects and bone. At the same time, the Portuguese discovered that the resources that the European market was desperate for were in abundance in Africa. The traders therefore decided to use glass beads as a medium in bartering for goods and raw materials with the Africans.
Glass beads were particularly singled out because glass working technology had not yet been discovered in Africa. Therefore, the African people were in awe of the exquisite beads of glass that the European traders had to offer. Because these beads were also used in bartering slaves, they were to later earn the name “slave beads” or aggry beads. Europe responded to the popularity and increased demand for African trade beads by increasing production in cities such as Venice which is today still famous for its unique and rare glass beads.
To clean most African beads use a small amount of Mineral Oil (found at your local grocers) on a clean cloth and rub. Not recommended for old or Antique beads as their dirt is well earned and adds to their history.