The History of Ancient African Jewelry

Hand-crafted jewelry has been an essential part of African cultures. Ordinarily, African jewelry is divided into a wide range of classifications which include necklaces, bracelets, pendants and earrings.

According to several historians, the origins of jewelry date back 75,000 years ago when ancient Africans made use of pea-sized snail shells as beads.

In most cases, the materials that were used to carve ancient African jewelry were organic materials that are readily available in the different regions of the continent.

Later on, Ancient Africans were able to add more materials for making jewelry after engaging in trades with different empires around the globe.

Broad Collar - Beadwork

Beads, however, are perhaps the most popular material that is being used to craft pieces of jewelry. The beads which are generated from Africa are sometimes known as trade beads since they were used as a currency in exchange for goods for many centuries.

Many tribes in Africa have been creating exquisite beadwork. As a matter of fact, the earliest known beaded jewelry was created at around 10,000 B.C. in Libya. Other than that, Ancient Egypt has also developed stunning beadwork which dates back to 2,000 B.C.

It is, however, essential to take note of that African jewelry comes in many forms and has a number of functions besides being a bodily adornment. In fact, it can be a decorative item used to keep the hair in place or better else a symbol of power and prestige of an individual in the society.

Maasai woman with jwellery

Interestingly enough, ancient Africans seldom used jewelry for ornamental purposes as most of them utilize it on religious rituals and ceremonies. It is also used in many marriage arrangements as an indication of the calculated value of the partnership. In Saharan communities, people also use jewelry as a currency to buy crops such as rice, vegetables, wheat and salt.

Interesting Facts about Ancient African Jewelry

  • Gold jewelry made by the Egyptians is often complimented with the use of three colors specifically turquoise, carnelian and lapis lazuli.
  • The oldest African jewelry ever discovered was found in the Blombos cave in South Africa in 2004. The pea-sized mollusk shell beads are believed to be more than 75,000 years old.
  • Cowrie shells were also used in Ancient African jewelry. Its shape often symbolizes female fertility.
  • Several archaeologists have discovered beads and beaded necklaces in the tombs of Ancient African chiefs and kings. It is believed that wearing and owning old African bead or jewelry can give luck, wisdom, hope and a good sense of well-being to the owner.
  • African jewelry has also been used by slaves to trade in exchange for food and clothing.
  • The Fulani people of Africa are widely known for its exquisite crafting of gold jewelry. Normally, their earrings are made of gold that can be up to five inches long.
  • The Fulani women also made use of gold earrings to display the ranking of their family in terms of wealth. In short, the bigger the rings were, the richer the family was.
  • Jewelry was also used to determine the marital status of the individual which was of immense significance in the society.

How important was bead jewelry in Zulu tribes?

Zulu bead jewelry, on the other hand, is built based on the long-standing traditions of their tribes. More often than not, their designs transmit essential information about the wearer.

What is the basis of creation of Maasai beaded jewelry?

Maasai beaded jewelry is built based on the rigid tribal regulations pertaining to design and colors.

What is the Yoruba Kings known for?

The Yoruba Kings are known for its beaded crowns.

Why do women from the Turkana tribe wear jewelry?