The Japan Times
January 13, 2002

Ancient stone marks may roll back date of 'modern behavior'

WASHINGTON (AP) Intricate patterns engraved on bits of stone found in a cave and dated at 77,000 years old suggest ancient humans in Africa developed complex behavior and abstract thought thousands of years earlier than the famed cave painters of Europe.

Pieces of crafted ocher, a stone used for carving and for making pigment powder, were unearthed from the floor of a seaside cave in South Africa, and researchers believe the markings indicate that people living there in ancient times were practicing "modern behavior."

The find pushes back by some 35,000 years the earliest time when morphologically modern humans were known to have developed modern behavior, said Christopher Henshilwood, the first author of a study that appeared Friday on Sciencexpress, the online version of the journal Science.

"The theory up until now has been that modern human behavior started only around 40,000 years ago," said Henshilwood, a researcher at State University of New York and at the Iziko Museum of Cape Town.

Henshilwood said a list drawn up 30 years ago by archaeologists suggested that the yardstick for modern behavior among ancient people should include evidence of the ability to produce art, such as cave paintings, to make bone tools and to develop the fairly complex technology and organization needed to catch food such as fish. Such factors, the experts decided, would demonstrate that the ancient people had a modern ability to reason, to create, organize and plan.

Until now, it was believed that such modern behavior first appeared in Europe, where cave paintings and other artifacts showing advanced thought processes have been uncovered at a number of sites.

But Henshilwood said discoveries in the Blombos Cave, east of Cape Town on the Indian Ocean, show that modern behavior developed in Africa earlier. He said the cave contains thousands of pieces of worked ocher, along with polished bone tools and many bones from fish — all signs of modern behavior.

"The whole of South Africa was occupied by a biologically modern people who had evolved about 150,000 years ago," Henshilwood said. Now, he said, "there is no doubt that the people in southern Africa were behaviorally modern 70,000 years ago."

Two scientific teams chemically dated the artifacts from the cave, confirming that they were left in deposits about 77,000 years old.

Steve Kuhn, a University of Arizona scientist who specializes in research on ancient people, said the South African study was "very good work by some very serious researchers."

But he said more evidence of engraved stones must be found before the research community accepts Henshilwood's conclusions.

"I'd be more comfortable if there were more of these engraved stones, if these alleged symbols were found many times in different places," said Kuhn. "It is possible they were just doodlings that really didn't mean anything."

The engraved stone artifacts found in the cave include two pieces of red ocher that had been rubbed on one side to make a flat, smooth surface. Ancient carvers then cut lines that crossed through and around the carving.

"The engraving itself is quite a complex geometric pattern. There is a system to the patterns," Henshilwood said. "We don't know what they mean, but they are symbols that I think could have been interpreted by those people as having meaning that would have been understood by others."

He said more than 8,000 other pieces of ocher were found in the cave, many of which had been rubbed smooth as if to make pigment powder.

"We think the powder was mixed with animal fat and applied to their bodies as a decoration, or to artifacts such as skin bags," Henshilwood said. Ancient peoples in many cultures used ocher pigment in similar ways.

The ocher stone, he said, was mined at a site 30 km away. There were other colors of the stone at the mine, but Henshilwood said the ancient peoples favored the red stone. The pigment may have been used in rituals, marking such events as puberty or childbirth, he said.

Very few sites where ancient modern people may have lived in Africa have been excavated, he said, but he believes that eventually more evidence will be found to confirm the level of civilized practices on the continent starting more than 70,000 years ago.

CAPE TOWN — Etchings on this 77,000-year-old ocher stone, found in a seaside cave in South Africa, suggest ancient humans were capable of complex behavior and abstract thought tens of thousands of years earlier than currently believed. AP PHOTO