Research Hints at South African Origin of Modern Mind 75,000 Years Ago

A new study by renowned Wits University archaeologist Prof Christopher Henshilwood provides first detailed summary of South African Middle Stone Age cultural periods known as the Still Bay techno-tradition (75-71 K years) and the Howiesons Poort techno-tradition (65-59 K years), and establishes the region as the primary center for the early development of human behavior.

Bone tools from the Howiesons Poort levels of the Sibudu Cave, northern KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. Left: bone points. Right: bones with parallel cut marks – these lines are deliberately engraved and may have been symbolic markings (Christopher S. Henshilwood)

“These periods were significant in the development of Homo sapiens behavior in southern Africa,” said Prof Henshilwood, who reports the findings in a paper published online in the Journal of World Prehistory (Wits version).

“They were periods of many innovations including, for example, the first abstract art (engraved ochre and engraved ostrich eggshell); the first jewelry (shell beads); the first bone tools; the earliest use of the pressure flaking technique, that was used in combination with heating to make stone spear points and the first probable use of stone tipped arrows launched by bow.”

“All of these innovations, plus many others we are just discovering, clearly show that Homo sapiens in southern Africa at that time were cognitively modern and behaving in many ways like ourselves. It is a good reason to be proud of our earliest, common ancestors who lived and evolved in South Africa and who later spread out into the rest of the world after about 60,000 years,” Prof Henshilwood said.

The study also addresses some of the nagging questions as to what drove our ancestors to develop these innovative technologies. According to Prof Henshilwood, answers to these questions are, in part, found in demography and climate change, particularly changing sea levels, which were major drivers of innovation and variability in material culture.

Prof Henshilwood and his team’s results revolutionize the idea that modern human behavior originated in Europe after about 40,000 years ago. There is increasing evidence for an African origin for behavioral and technological modernity more than 70,000 years ago and that the earliest origin of all Homo sapiens lies in Africa with a special focus in southern Africa.

Engraved ostrich eggshell fragments from the Howiesons Poort levels at Diepkloof Rock Shelter, Western Cape Province. Scale bar – 1 cm (Christopher S. Henshilwood / Pierre-Jean Texier)

“In just the past decade our knowledge of Homo sapiens behavior in the Middle Stone Age, and in particular of the Still Bay and Howiesons Poort, has expanded considerably. With the benefit of hindsight we may ironically conclude that the origins of ‘Neanthropic Man‘, the epitome of behavioral modernity in Europe, lay after all in Africa,” Prof Henshilwood wrote in the paper.

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Bibliographic information: Christopher S. Henshilwood. 2012. Late Pleistocene Techno-traditions in Southern Africa: A Review of the Still Bay and Howiesons Poort, c. 75–59 ka. Journal of World Prehistory, vol. 25, issue 3-4, pp 205-237; doi: 10.1007/s10963-012-9060-3