Volume 61 Number 2, March/April 2008
by Blake Edgar
Did culture begin with the color red and a Stone Age clambake?
Luxury villas and a world-class golf course cover the ocean-side bluffs at Pinnacle Point, South Africa, but the most valuable real estate lies 200 feet below, in caves and rock shelters that overlook the Indian Ocean from the cliffs. The soils in one of them, Cave 13B, contain evidence that is at the center of one of archaeology’s longest running and most difficult debates–when and where did modern human culture begin?
Curtis Marean, an archaeologist at Arizona State University’s Institute of Human Origins, leads me into the cave, which had been occupied by humans as early as 164,000 years ago. Marean points out soil deposits along the cave walls that date to the Middle Stone Age (MSA), which spanned from 285,000 to 45,000 years ago. “When I first saw this,” he says, “I knew it had to be quite old.” The deepest soil layer is a dark smear, chock full of crushed shell and campfire ash. “That is the earliest shell midden in the world,” says Marean, “and it contains worked ocher.”
Earlier hominins subsisted almost entirely on land-based plants and animals. The shellfish, plus the possible use of ocher for red pigment, and an array of tiny stone bladelet tools provide evidence that people living 164,000 years ago had a culture as complex as modern-day hunter-gatherers.
Pinnacle Point joins a few other South African sites, such as Klasies River and Blombos Cave, in providing evidence that a culture displaying modern behavior arose on Africa’s southern coast just tens of thousands of years after people with modern human anatomy had evolved. What a fully modern culture might look like in the archaeological record is a matter of debate. Some argue that a site containing artifacts akin to the toolkits used by present-day people (including bone tools and composite tools with stone flakes attached to some kind of shaft or handle) suffices. Others only accept evidence that symbols were used for communication as proof of modern behavior. Pinnacle Point’s earliest artifacts don’t definitively reveal a capacity to use symbols and language, but better evidence has turned up 50 miles to the west at Blombos Cave.
It’s so confusing, it must be art. The lines scratched into this 75,000-year-old piece of ocher from Blombos Cave might not mean much to us, but they may show a capacity for symbolic thinking. (Francesco d’Errico)
Afternoon sun streams through an office window at the Iziko South African Museum in Cape Town. I rotate a four-inch-long chunk of red ocher from Blombos Cave in my hands until sunlight catches the enigmatic marks that crisscross one flat edge. Deliberate strokes from a sharp stone formed a cross-hatched pattern framed by two parallel lines. Some archaeologists, including Blombos Cave excavator Christopher Henshilwood of the University of Bergen in Norway, believe this pattern and another on a smaller piece of ocher dated to 75,000 years ago are the earliest evidence of human minds capable of expressing themselves through symbols.
Making symbols implies the ability to speak a language and, says University of Stellenbosch archaeologist Hilary Deacon, that may have been the crucial developmental step that eventually allowed people to establish the vast social and trade networks that distinguish modern societies.
Archaeologist Chester Cain of Washington University in Saint Louis has proposed that the intentionally marked artifacts from Blombos and other South African sites represent acts of personal expression. Modern cognitive and symbolic abilities were already in place, suggests Cain, but it also may have taken a dynamic social environment to encourage such individuality. Whether an object like the incised ocher imparted identity or some other long-lost meaning, it reflects a capacity to give an abstract idea a physical form. Even if we never understand why someone made these patterns, what matters is that someone did.