What Happened to the Human Mind after the Howiesons Poort?

Article excerpt


Recently, Laurel Phillipson and Marlize Lombard published evidence for Middle Stone Age bow and arrow technology in southern Africa (Lombard & Phillipson 2010). Thanks to Antiquity, the paper was widely publicised, and Prof. Chris Stringer's contribution to the BBC press release once again highlighted one of the most pressing questions regarding human behavioural and cognitive evolution during the mid-late Upper Pleistocene (here used informally to demarcate the period between roughly 80 000 and 40 000 years ago). He saw the evidence for early bow and arrow technology as adding to the view that modern humans in Africa began to hunt in a new way by 64 000 years ago, and that it further extends the advanced behaviours inferred for early modern people of the continent. According to Stringer, the long gaps in the subsequent record of complex technologies such as the bow and arrow, however, remain perplexing (also see Villa et al. 2010: 640). It may mean that regular use of these weapons did not come until much later, and that the concept of bows and arrows may have been reinvented many millennia afterwards (Stringer pers. comm.).

Similar concerns have been raised by others, not only regarding mechanically projected weaponry, but also about behavioural and cognitive complexity in general. Consensus about whether cultural modernity originated in Africa, or had its roots in multiple continents still has to be reached (e.g. Conard 2010). Many researchers, nonetheless, now accept that human behaviour, associated with the Still Bay and Howiesons Poort stone tool industries between about 75 000 and 60 000 years ago in southern Africa (see Jacobs & Roberts 2008 for discussion on dating), was essentially 'modern', or cognitively and behaviourally complex (Lombard & Parsons 2010). We use 'modern' with caution mostly because it reflects original texts, and we cannot hope to translate the meaning accurately on behalf of others within the framework of current debate (see Shea 2011). In the context of our own discussion, we follow Hovers and Belfer-Cohen's (2006: 296) use of the term as: "relating to, or characteristic of, the present or the immediate past, with no a priori evolutionary connotations. According to this definition, modern behaviour is not necessarily unique to the present, and its presence in the past does not distract from its modernity".

Based on stone tool technology alone, the Still Bay and Howiesons Poort industries show remarkable sophistication, of a kind mostly associated previously with the Upper Palaeolithic in Eurasia, or the Later Stone Age in sub-Saharan Africa--roughly beginning between 50 000 and 40 000 years ago. Yet, stone tool assemblages immediately post-dating the Howiesons Poort (post-Howiesons Poort), between about 58 000 and 50 000 years ago, have been described as "reverting to type" (Deacon 1989: 560), "less sophisticated" (Jacobs & Roberts 2009: 191), and "returning to earlier technological strategies" (McCall 2007: 1749), reminiscent of assemblages pre-dating 75 000 years ago. This perception is predominantly based on early observations regarding the stone tool assemblage from a single site, Klasies River (Singer & Wymer 1982), and the seeming lack of unambiguous symbolic objects during the 10-20 millennia following the Howiesons Poort (see Mitchell 2008 for discussion). Potentially far-reaching explanations of significant episodes of simplification or devolution (Mellars 2007: 7), technological and/or behavioural reversal (McCall 2007: 1749), a material culture cul-de-sac (Henshilwood 2007: 130) or cultural regression (Henshilwood 2005: 455) have been proffered. These interpretations could contribute to views that people living in southern Africa were not behaviourally or cognitively 'fully modern' before about 50 000 years ago (Ambrose & Lorenz 1990; Klein 2001), or that the transition to 'modern human technology' was marked by the change from the Middle Stone Age to the Later Stone Age (e. …