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Blombos Cave

Anatomically Modern Humans of the Middle Paleolithic

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Engraved ochres from Blombos Cave.

Engraved ochres from Blombos Cave.

Henshilwood et al. 2002 / Science

Blombos Cave is a site at the very tip of South Africa where great strides in understanding the development of modern human beings are being taken these days. While much of the recent press attention has been on the scholarly debate on whether humans evolved once in Africa (the Out of Africa theory), or several times all over the world (the multiregional hypothesis), a quiet revolution has occurred centered on what it means to be human.

Blombos Cave and the Creative Explosion

For several decades--probably since the discovery of the Lascaux Caves in France--archaeologists believed that while anatomically modern Homo sapiens evolved somewhere between 100,000-150,000 years ago, humans didn't actually develop modern behaviors and thought processes until around 50,000-40,000 years ago. This event, known in some scientific circles as the "creative explosion," was announced by what researchers saw as a sudden blossoming of symbolic thought.

What researchers mean by symbolic thought is the ability to identify--and create--representations of things. Thus, the theory went, a species really not much smarter than other hominids of the time suddenly began painting bison and mammoth on cave walls in France. Evidence of the flowering of modern human behavior is held to including fishing, the manufacture of bone tools, the use of decoration, and the production of art.

Modern Behaviors in Africa

Part of the trouble was, none of the major scientists was really doing much research in Africa-there was a lot to be investigated in France, after all; but in retrospect the neglect of Africa is a little weird, since we've known for a very long time that that's where the earliest humans evolved. Then, evidence of an earlier flourishing of the creative mind began to appear, in southern Africa south of the Zambezi River, dated to the Middle Stone Age, 70,000 years ago and more. Similar artifact collection types-known as assemblages in archaeological parlance-alled Howiesons Poort and Stillbay have been found at sites such as the Klasies River Caves, Boomplaas, and Die Kelders Cave I in South Africa.

These sites included sophisticated bone tools, backed blades, a careful selection of raw material for stone tools and the use of a punch technique; but most of these were controversial in one respect or another. That was until Blombos Cave.

Modern Behaviors at Blombos Cave

Since 1991, South African researchers led by Christopher Henshilwood have been working at the Blombos Cave site. Artifacts found there include sophisticated bone and stone tools, fish bones, and an abundance of used ochre. Ochre has no known economic function; it is almost universally accepted as a source of color for ceremonial, decorative purposes.

The Blombos Cave layers containing used ochre are dated 70,000 to 80,000 years before the present. Most recently (April of 2004), a cluster of deliberately perforated and red-stained shell beads dating to the Middle Stone Age has been found, and is being interpreted as personal ornaments or jewelry for the occupants of Blombos.

The best and most likely interpretation of these finds, and numerous others throughout Africa, is that the growth of the human symbolic thought was a slow process that continued throughout the Middle Stone Age in Africa. How that flourishing of creative thought left Africa is still under discussion, but one way may have been through the Southern Dispersal Route.

Flint Knapping at Blombos Cave

On October 28, 2010, researchers writing in Science magazine reported the discovery of advanced flint knapping. The photo essay "Flint Knapping Technology at Blombos Cave" includes a description of the cave, a discussion of what pressure flaking is, and the evidence identified at Blombos for pressure flaking. Oh, and a bibliography, of course, with some great photos from the research team.

Sources

Blombos Cave is part of the About.com Guide to the Middle Paleolithic, and the Howiesons Poort/Stillbay complex, as well as the Dictionary of Archaeology.

See the official Blombos Cave website for a great deal of information and photos about the ongoing excavations by Chris Henshilwood.

Thanks to Chris Hardaker for the suggestion and assistance in producing this article; to Scott MacEachern for his improvements, and to the (unwitting) members of Palanth-L whose fabulous archives were very helpful indeed.

A brief bibliography has been collected for this project.

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