Early adornment of ostrich eggs
The earliest known egg decorating took place 60,000 years ago, obviously well before the idea of Easter made any sense at all. Found in the South African desert, these eggs were unlike the decorated eggs most of us are familiar with, as were actually critical to their owners’ survival (and not just jellybean storage).
Early egg innovation
The Kalahari desert is a harsh environment, but Kalahari Bushmen today provide a model for how these ancient ostrich eggs may have been used. After the dangerous task of stealing an egg from the ostrich’s nest, the egg is punctured and drained (which, yes, is killing the embryo inside, much to the horror of my kindergartner.) The drained eggshell is fitted with a plug or possibly a spout, but otherwise naturally makes an excellent water flask for people traversing the desert.
Ostrich eggshells are around 2 millimeters thick, making them strong enough for traveling with, while still being light enough to be practical. The can hold around a liter of water, and are breathable to help keep them from heating up too much.
Beauty beyond practicality
As valuable as a nice waterbottle is, early humans found another use for the durability of the eggshells. While some shells have been found in discoloration, it’s unclear if some of the red or brown mottling found at archaeological dig sites proved design or intent on the part of their owners. However, shells dating back 60,000 years have been found with obvious etching, representing some of the earliest examples of symbolic representation. Even without understanding the exact meaning of the markings, it displays a degree of sophistication and attachment to each egg-flask.
This imparted value developed further, and by 40,000 years ago it was taking the form of decorated beads, still made from ostrich eggs. Broken shell fragments were rounded, smoothed and adorned with markings and holes for stringing. The symbolic value had grown so much that, while the beads clearly couldn’t hold water, they were being found far from the Kalahari desert, apparently thanks to early trading between peoples. Everyone wanted the egg beads, and they didn’t even have bunnies on them yet.
Source: Egg Cetera #6: Hunting for the world’s oldest decorated eggs by Dr. Brian Stewart, University of Cambridge News