The peoples of sub-Saharan Africa have widely used beads as a material of adornment and sign of status from ancient times. Before glass beads were introduced by trade from Europe and India beginning in the sixteenth century, there was little or no indigenous source of glass among African societies. Instead, stones—carnelian, jasper, and agate—were used as beads in the upper Nile Valley and south to Old-Oyo and the Benin courts. Beads made from ivory, bone, and animals’ teeth as well as gold, bronze, and iron were used by persons of authority in West and Central Africa. Natural sources—seashells and insect shells, twigs, nuts and seeds, carved wood, and twisted vines—were the materials from which many beaded objects were created. Figural sculptures from archeological excavations and works such as the Benin bronze in the exhibition provide evidence of the way beads were worn and used as bodily adornment.
By the sixteenth century, the importation of glass beads to West, Central, and Southeast Africa by Arab and Portuguese traders overland and by ship was part of a larger world of economic and political change. Precious stones and metals had poured into Europe from 1550 to 1750 from India and new overseas colonies. In this same period, Arab traders were bringing textiles, metal instruments, coral, rare stones, and beads made in India to East Africa in exchange for ivory, rare woods, gold, and slaves. The Portuguese were moving along the coast of West Africa, initially bringing coral, cowrie shells, and bronze manilas (large brass and copper rings) to the accessible ports of Benin and the Congo. Arab traders crossed the Sahara, conveying their wares, including glass beads from Venice as early as 1500, to African middlemen, who traveled to the towns and villages along the Niger River to West Africa. Central and Southern Africans had their trade routes linking Southeast Africa with the peoples of the Congo. With the development of the European glass industry in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Venice and then in Bohemia, Holland, and Germany, the arrival of European glass beads became simply another commodity introduced into trade with Africa.