Africa's Homo sapiens were the first techies

December 05, 2012

The search for the origin of modern human behaviour and technological advancement among our ancestors in southern Africa some 70 000 years ago, has taken a step closer to firmly establishing Africa, and especially South Africa, as the primary centre for the early development of human behaviour.

A new research paper by renowned Wits University archaeologist, Prof. Christopher Henshilwood, is the first detailed summary of the time periods he and a group of international researchers have been studying in South Africa: namely the Still Bay techno-traditions (c. 75 000 - 70 000 years) and the Howiesons Poort techno-tradition (c. 65 000 - 60 000 years).

The paper, entitled Late Pleistocene Techno-traditions in Southern Africa: A Review of the Still Bay and Howiesons Poort, c. 75 ka, has been published online in the Journal of World Prehistory on 6 November 2012.

Henshilwood says these periods were significant in the development of Homo sapiens behaviour in southern Africa. They were periods of many innovations including, for example, the first abstract art (engraved ochre and engraved ostrich eggshell); the first jewellery (shell beads); the first bone tools; the earliest use of the pressure flaking technique, that was used in combination with heating to make stone spear points and the first probable use of stone tipped arrows launched by bow.

"All of these innovations, plus many others we are just discovering, clearly show that Homo sapiens in southern Africa at that time were cognitively modern and behaving in many ways like ourselves. It is a good reason to be proud of our earliest, common ancestors who lived and evolved in South Africa and who later spread out into the rest of the world after about 60 000 years," says Henshilwood.

The research also addresses some of the nagging questions as to what drove our ancestors to develop these innovative technologies. According to Henshilwood answers to these questions are, in part, found in demography and climate change, particularly changing sea levels, which were major drivers of innovation and variability in material culture.

This paper is just the latest to come from Henshilwood and his teams' research on African archaeology that revolutionised the idea that modern human behaviour originated in Europe after about 40 000 years ago. There is increasing evidence for an African origin for behavioural and technological modernity more than 70 000 years ago and that the earliest origin of all Homo sapiens lies in Africa with a special focus in southern Africa.

Henshilwood writes: "In just the past decade our knowledge of Homo sapiens behaviour in the Middle Stone Age, and in particular of the Still Bay and Howiesons Poort, has expanded considerably. With the benefit of hindsight we may ironically conclude that the origins of 'Neanthropic Man', the epitome of behavioural modernity in Europe, lay after all in Africa."

In the past decade the research led by Henshilwood and a team of multi-disciplinary researchers has turned around, within a decade, the widely held idea that modern human behaviour originated in Europe after about 40 ka ago. With his research team he increasingly provides evidence for an African origin for behavioural and technological modernity more than 70 000 years ago and has decisively shown that Africa is the birthplace for early development on modern human cognition. He has thus restored a pride in the place that Africa played in the evolution of Homo sapiens and has been honoured for this by past South African Presidents Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki and through the many awards and invitations that he has received nationally and internationally.

His more than 40 publications since 2001, including four in Science (three as 1st author) in 2002, 2004, 2010, 2011 and review articles in Science, 2009 and Nature, 2012, demonstrate that southern Africa was a primary centre for the early development of human behaviour mediated by symbols. Since 1999 Henshilwood has published more than 40 papers in leading peer reviewed journals, volumes and books on aspects of African archaeology, especially the Middle and Later Stone Age; on the origins of language and symbolism; the effects of climatic variation on human demographics, and the epistemology of early behavioural evolution.

In 2010 Henshilwood was rated as an A1 researcher by the European Research Council and awarded a R25 million, 5 year research grant (2010 - 2015) as Principal Investigator to carry out research on the Middle Stone Age in South Africa. This award is shared in part with Wits University. In 2012 his Research Chair at Wits University on the "Origins of Modern Human Behaviour" was renewed for 5 years. Over the past 5 years Henshilwood has made a major contribution to archaeological research at Wits University and the University of Bergen in Norway and also at a national and international level.

In 1999 Henshilwood founded the African Heritage Research Institute in Cape Town, South Africa, under the patronage of former president Nelson Mandela, to promote archaeological research on the origins of H. sapiens in southern Africa. In 2001 he was honoured at the opening of the South African parliament by former president Thabo Mbeki for his research in African archaeology. In 2005 he was awarded the Chevalier dans l'Ordre des Palmes Académiques, by the French Prime Minister for distinguished contributions to French education and culture within a South African context. He was accepted as a member of the South African Academy of Science in 2009.

University of the Witwatersrand

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