About 77,000 years ago, in a cave overlooking the Indian Ocean, a
group of early people were using bone tools for leatherwork,
grinding red ocher into powder, probably for use as body decoration,
and even carving geometric designs. At their site, about 150 miles
from present-day Cape Town, they used fire contained in small
hearths, and hunted a variety of animals and fish.
This small band of early Africans were, a group of scientists
excavating the Blombos Cave site believes, thoroughly modern people,
capable of abstract thought and probably language. Evidence from
their settlement could have important implications for theories
about the emergence of modern people.
"The Blombos Cave, along with evidence from other sites
elsewhere, is showing us that modern human behavior existed long
before we originally thought," says Chris Hensilwood, a researcher
at the Iziko Museum of Cape Town and the lead archaeologist at
Blombos. "It brings into question the theory that modern human
behavior develops late and might really have flourished in Europe
only around 35,000 years ago."
Africa or Europe?
For years, many archaeologists believed that abstract thought and
sophisticated communication first developed in Europe in a "creative
explosion" between 40,000 and 50,000 years ago, sometime after
anatomically modern homo sapiens migrated from Africa to Europe and
replaced existing Neanderthal populations.
The finds at the Blombos Caves on South Africa's southern coast,
however, show that modern human behavior may have first appeared in
Africa far earlier.
Among the important finds at Blombos is a large cache of 28 bone
tools, which are not usually found in African sites more than 40,000
years old. The site has also yielded 8,000 pieces of ocher, with
marks that indicate they might have been ground to make a powder,
and evidence of a fishing culture that required sophisticated tools
and cooperation. Archaeologists believe the ocher powder was used as
a body decoration, a sign of religious or ceremonial beliefs.
Most compelling, however, is the discovery of two small pieces of
red ocher, smoothed flat and carved with cross-hatch designs, that
may be the earliest pieces of human art ever found.
The creation of art requires abstract thought and is believed to
be one of the most important signs of modern behavior. "We don't
know what they mean," says Mr. Hensilwood. "But they're very complex
designs that are clearly meant to mean something. You see similar
designs engraved and painted elsewhere at much later dates."
The search for the origins of modern behavior is one of
archaeology's most perplexing puzzles. The key question for
scientists is whether modern behavior first began more than 120,000
years ago when humans became anatomically modern, or whether it
followed tens of thousands of years later as the result of genetic,
environmental, or cultural changes.
The conclusion has important ramifications for understanding
human evolution and for theories about the spread of humans from