Did Early Humans Think?

By Millner, Caille | Newsweek International, January 21, 2002 | Go to article overview
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Did Early Humans Think?


Millner, Caille, Newsweek International


On childhood trips to his grandparents' farm on the western tip of South Africa, Christopher Henshilwood liked to wander the sand dunes and investigate the caves along the shore of the Indian Ocean. One of his favorite places was a tiny grotto known as Blombos Cave. "I would pick up stone tools, bones," he says. "I would poke in fireplaces." Playing with these relics led him to wonder about their original owners: were they human beings like him?

In 1991, Henshilwood, by then an archeologist at the State University of New York at Stoneybrook, returned to Blombos Cave in search of answers. Current theories don't give the former cave occupants much credit. Homo sapiens may have developed anatomically in Africa 100,000 years or so ago, but only after migrating to Europe about 35,000 years ago did they undergo the "behavioral explosion" that led to modern thought. This was how scientists explained the cave paintings and bone tools of Europe and the lack of such finds in Africa. But Henshilwood and his team soon cast doubt on this view.

Early on they found 28 sharp bone tools--awls to pierce hides or make clothing. What really got attention in archaeology circles, however, were two pieces of red ochre engraved with cross-hatched designs-- decorative pieces adorned with what appeared to be a "complex geometric motif," a sign of advanced thought. "The bone tools and the engraved ochre show the capacity for decoration, ceremony, artwork, conscious forward planning with steps involved--all things that we associate with modern human behavior," says Dr. Lawrence Tucker, a neurologist at the University of Cape Town.

To establish the age of the objects, Henshilwood analyzed the layers of sand lying above and below them, using a new technique to date individual grains (no dating techniques work on ochre).

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