An Engraved Bone Fragment from C. 70,000-Year-Old Middle Stone Age Levels at Blombos Cave, South Africa: Implications for the Origin of Symbolism and Language

By D'errico, Francesco; Henshilwood, Christopher et al. | Antiquity, June 2001 | Go to article overview

An Engraved Bone Fragment from C. 70,000-Year-Old Middle Stone Age Levels at Blombos Cave, South Africa: Implications for the Origin of Symbolism and Language


D'errico, Francesco, Henshilwood, Christopher, Nilssen, Peter, Antiquity


Depictional or abstract representations, and personal ornaments, are generally considered archaeological expressions of modern cognitive abilities and evidence for the acquisition of articulate oral language (e.g. Deacon 1997; Mellars 1998; Aiello 1998). These behaviours are commonly recorded at European sites dated after c. 35,000 years ago. It is a matter of debate whether convincing archaeological evidence exists for an earlier origin of these traits. Some models link these behavioural innovations to a rapid biological change in Africa at c. 50,000 (Klein 2000); others suggest a much earlier and possibly more gradual evolution towards such `modern' behaviour (e.g. Watts 1999; Barham 1998; McBrearty & Brooks 2000; Henshilwood et al. in press). Alternatively, symbolism might have developed independently of biological changes as a consequence of demographic, ecological, and cultural changes, as is argued to be the case for Neanderthals (see d'Errico et al. 1998).

In this paper we re-examine a fragment of mammal bone recovered in 1992 from the Blombos Cave Middle Stone Age phase BBC M1, Layer SAN (equivalent to Layer CD -- see Henshilwood et al. in press) (FIGURE 1). One surface has a series of sub-parallel incisions that were made with a stone tool.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

In a previous publication opinion was reserved as to whether these incisions represent butchery marks or intentional engraving (Henshilwood & Sealy 1997). Here we re-examine the object in light of recent discoveries at Blombos Cave of two pieces of ochre deliberately engraved with abstract patterns interpreted as symbolic, meaningful representations (Henshilwood et al. in press). We propose that the Blombos bone is deliberately engraved and that abstract representations occur on material other than ochre in the Middle Stone Age. This evidence points to the existence of symbolic culture in southern Africa by at least 70,000 years ago.

Archaeological context

Blombos Cave (BBC) is situated near Still Bay in the southern Cape. Located in a coastal cliff 34.5 m above sea level, the cave is about 100 m from the Indian Ocean. The Middle Stone Age (MSA) levels at the cave were first excavated in 1992, and subsequently annually between 1997 and 2000. The uppermost Later Stone Age (LSA) levels are [sup.14]C dated at about 300 years BP, the lowermost at 2000 BP, and are separated from the underlying MSA by 5-40 cm of sterile aeolian sand. During five excavation seasons 13 cu. m of deposit was excavated. A lime-rich matrix derived from the calcarenite cave rock ensures excellent preservation and a wide range of marine and terrestrial animal bone was recovered including fish, shellfish (Henshilwood et al. in press) and human teeth (Grine et al. 2000). Recorded features include discrete in situ circular hearths and stone working activity areas. Shaped bone tools were recovered from MSA levels (Henshilwood & Sealy 1997; Henshilwood et al. in press; submitted). In 2000, excavated MSA layers were subdivided into three phases (FIGURE 1): an upper phase, BBC M1 (Layers CA-CE), typified by Still Bay type biracial foliate points with a few bone tools (Henshilwood et al. in press); a middle BBC M2 phase (Layers CF & CGA) containing more than 20 worked bone tools with few bifacials; and a lower shellfish rich phase, BBC M3 (Layers CGB-CJ), that contains typical MSA blades and flakes with a low incidence of retouch.

The MSA levels are being dated using luminescence techniques: single-grain laser luminescence (SGLL), single aliquot optically stimulated luminescence (OSL and IRSL), multiple aliquot OSL on sediments and also TL of burnt lithics, and electron spin resonance (ESR) on teeth. This work is on-going in Aberystwyth (UK), Gif-sur-Yvette (France) and Hamilton (Canada). The location of the `Still Bay' phase (for a full definition of the `Still Bay' see Henshilwood et al. in press) within the local MSA cultural sequence provides a handle on its estimated age that is additional to absolute dating methods. …

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