The cultural roots of human evolution





Metal scrapes on hard sand as archaeologist Chris Henshilwood shaves away the top layer of sediment in Blombos Cave. After just a few moments, the tip of his trowel unearths the humerus of a pint-sized tortoise that walked the Southern Cape of South Africa many millennia ago. Next come shells from local mussels and snails amid blackened soil and bits of charred wood, all remnants of an ancient feast. It was one of many enjoyed by a distinct group of early humans who visited Blombos Cave over the course of thousands of years.

The Still Bay culture was one of the most advanced Middle Stone Age groups in Africa when it emerged some 78,000 years ago in a startlingly early flourishing of the human mind. Henshilwood's excavations at Blombos Cave have revealed distinctive tools, including carefully worked stone points that probably served as knives and spear tips, and bits of rock inscribed with apparently symbolic designs. But evidence of the technology disappears abruptly in sediment about 71,000 years old, along with all proof of human habitation in southern Africa. It would be 7,000 years before a new culture appeared, with a markedly different toolkit, including crescent-shaped blades probably used as arrowheads.

What drove the coming and going of these early cultures? At about the time the Still Bay culture disappeared, the globe — already in the middle of a glacial period — began to cool even further, causing sea levels to fall (see 'Crucible of culture'). “Humans are very adaptable,” says Henshilwood, “but I think climate must have played some role in the demise of the Still Bay.”...




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