Ostrich eggshell bead strontium isotopes reveal persistent macroscale social networking across late Quaternary southern Africa.
Stewart, BA, Zhao, Y, Mitchell, PJ, Dewar, G, Gleason, JD, Blum, JD
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Hunter-gatherer exchange networks dampen subsistence and reproductive risks by building relationships of mutual support outside local groups that are underwritten by symbolic gift exchange. Hxaro, the system of delayed reciprocity between Ju/'hoãn individuals in southern Africa's Kalahari Desert, is the best-known such example and the basis for most analogies and models of hunter-gatherer exchange in prehistory. However, its antiquity, drivers, and development remain unclear, as they do for long-distance exchanges among African foragers more broadly. Here we show through strontium isotope analyses of ostrich eggshell beads from highland Lesotho, and associated strontium isoscape development, that such practices stretch back into the late Middle Stone Age. We argue that these exchange items originated beyond the macroband from groups occupying the more water-stressed subcontinental interior. Tracking the emergence and persistence of macroscale, transbiome social networks helps illuminate the evolution of social strategies needed to thrive in stochastic environments, strategies that in our case study show persistence over more than 33,000 y.