reply to post by KilgoreTrout
Back in 2002, a team working at Blombos Cave in South Africa reported finding two 77,000 year old pieces of ochre (one of which is pictured here)
etched with what appears to be a deliberate cross-hatched pattern. The findings were published in Science, and I wrote about them at the time. A
couple of years later, the same team, led by Christopher Henshilwood of the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa and the University of Bergen
in Norway, reported equally old shell beads that may have been used as personal ornaments. Many, although not all, researchers interpreted these finds
as evidence of early symbolic behavior and maybe even art. Indeed, the discoveries eventually convinced many scientists that symbolic behavior did not
begin during the so-called "Upper Paleolithic creative explosion" in Europe 40,000 years ago but much earlier.
In this week's Science, I report on new finds of etched ochre, some dated 100,000 years old, from Blombos Cave. The work was presented at a meeting in
Cape Town in January and is also in press at the Journal of Human Evolution. Here are a few extracts of my report:
To analyze the latest finds, Henshilwood teamed up with Francesco d'Errico of the University of Bordeaux in France and independent ochre expert Ian
Watts, who is based in Athens. The trick with ancient ochre is to figure out what early humans were using it for. Many previous studies have concluded
that ochre was often ground to make a powder, which could have been used to paint bodies--a form of social identification usually considered
symbolic--or for more utilitarian purposes. For example, Lynnette Wadley of Witwatersrand has argued from modern-day experiments that ground ochre
could have been used as a kind of glue to haft stone tools into wooden or bone handles.
So Henshilwood and colleagues focused their attention on 13 pieces engraved in ways that seemed inconsistent with grinding alone. Some pieces have
lines arranged in apparent fan-shaped or crosshatched designs; others are etched in wavy patterns. Microscopic examination showed that these
engravings had been made with a pointed stone tool and a finely controlled hand.
Of the 13 pieces, eight were found at levels reliably dated to about 100,000 years ago. And Henshilwood's team argues that the findings of similar
etched pieces at both 77,000 and 100,000 years ago is particularly significant:
... some of the oldest pieces have a crosshatched pattern similar to that of the two original ochre pieces dated to 77,000 years ago. And other
researchers have very recently discovered similar crosshatched patterns on a few African stone and bone objects thought to be as old as the new finds,
or nearly so. This refutes suggestions that the marks are merely doodles, Henshilwood says, and suggests a 25,000-year tradition of symbolic
I quote a couple of researchers who aren't entirely convinced, on various grounds, that the pieces indicate symbolic behavior. But even if they did,
we will probably never know what they really meant to the people who engraved them.
These Shell bead works date from the same era
ScienceDaily (Aug. 27, 2009) — Shell beads newly unearthed from four sites in Morocco confirm early humans were consistently wearing and potentially
trading symbolic jewelry as early as 80,000 years ago. These beads add significantly to similar finds dating back as far as 110,000 in Algeria,
Morocco, Israel and South Africa, confirming these as the oldest form of personal ornaments. This crucial step towards modern culture is reported this
week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
A team of researchers recovered 25 marine shell beads dating back to around 70,000 to 85,000 years ago from sites in Morocco, as part of the European
Science Foundation EUROCORES programme 'Origin of Man, Language and Languages'. The shells have man-made holes through the centre and some show signs
of pigment and prolonged wear, suggesting they were worn as jewelry.
Across all the locations shells were found from a similar time period from the Nassarius genus. That these shells were used similarly across so many
sites suggests this was a cultural phenomenon, a shared tradition passed along through cultures over thousands of years. Several of the locations
where shells have been found are so far inland that the shells must have been intentionally brought there.
"Either people went to sea and collected them, or more likely marine shell beads helped create and maintain exchange networks between coastal and
inland peoples. This shows well-structured human culture that attributed meaning to these things," said Francesco d'Errico, lead author and director
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