African beads have played an enormous role in the culture, fashion, economy, and artistic expression of the African people. Today, they are cherished by collectors, jewelry makers, and everyday people who just love wearing African beads. Furthermore, the term African beads is used to refer to both beads locally produced by indigenous people of the African continent as well as trade beads that have travelled from other parts of the world and now circulate and recently sourced from Africa.
Historically, beads and bead makers have a long history in Africa. Beads have been made by indigenous Africans for thousands of years. In ancient times Egyptian, Greek, and Indians established trading bases in the East Africa and eventually the Arabs invaded in the eighth century and established trade routes with the wealthy kingdom of Ghana in modern day Mauritanian. The Arabs brought glass beads to the Niger delta to trade for gold and slaves. European explorers and traders began to arrive in the 15th century and this was followed by a tremendous influx of beads during the colonial period.
Today, the tradition of beads continues to be ingrained in African culture and old trade beads are still used for internal commerce. Production of beads is distributed throughout many countries on the African continent. However, the Hausa people of West Africa are particularly known for dominating the bead trade when they travel extensively to locate beads in villages, modify many beads, and sell them to local and foreign merchants.
African beads are made from a diverse array of materials. Some of the oldest beads were made from natural materials such as stones, clay, plant materials such as doum palm nuts and bamboo stems, and materials such as ostrich eggshells, bones such as the batik bone head of Kenya, Buffalo horn, and marine shells such as the conus. Merely, these materials continue to be used today. Similarly, metal beads have been made from gold, bronze, and brass especially in West Africa countries such as Nigeria, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Mali, Cameroon, and Senegal. Silva has also been traditionally popular in Ethiopia.
The uses of beads in Africa are as varied as the materials used to make them. Bead work is very popular in many African nations and is integrated into many art forms including: clothing such as the stand-out collars of the Maasai tribe, headdresses and belts, wooden sculptures, small leather amulets and a myriad of jewelry items where beads are regarded as items of wealth, power, and status. Because of their long history, beads continue to play a role in many traditional rites, festivals, and ceremonies in Africa.
(Art and Culture blog)