Blombos Cave is located on the extreme southern coast of South Africa, nearly 200 miles east of Cape Town. This site, overlooking the Indian Ocean, has revealed evidence of modern human behaviors existing 75,000 years ago.
For decades, archaeologists believed that modern Homo sapiens evolved almost 150,000 years ago but did not develop “modern” skills, behavior, or thought processes until 50,000 to 40,000 years ago. The most widely known examples of this modern behavior are located in Europe. Cave paintings, decorative arts, elaborate burials, specialized tools, and areas of occupation with discrete functions can be found in many sites in Northern Spain and Southern France.
Professor Christopher Henshilwood, of the South African Museum in Cape Town, discovered some finely made 75,000-year-old bifacial stone tools while investigating Blombos Cave in 1991. These leaf-shaped spear tips, known as “Still Bay points,” were found together with well-preserved animal remains. Similar tools had previously been seen only in Europe, dated at 30,000 to 20,000 years old. Henshilwood launched a series of excavations in the cave that have archaeologists worldwide rethinking the development of human culture.
Blombos Cave was occupied periodically during the Middle Stone Age (MSA), which ranged from 250,000 years ago to 40,000 years ago. There was a 70,000-year hiatus, in which the unoccupied cave was filled with wind-driven sand as the sea level lowered and the entrance was blocked by a 40-m dune. The cave appears to have reopened only after the mid-Holocene, 5,000 to 3,000 years ago, as the sea level rose again and eroded the base of the dune.
The MSA layers of occupation yielded an array of artifacts. In addition to Still Bay bifacial points, Henshilwood has uncovered 75,000-year-old stonework of a kind seen only in Europe 20,000 years ago. Bone tools are another technological innovation surprising to find at this level. Worked bone is a rare find in the Paleolithic, but 30 artifacts have been found at Blombos. Faunal remains illustrate a varied diet. Bones of both large and small mammals, seal, seafood, and shellfish have been retrieved. Thousands of pieces of ochre have been recovered from MSA levels. Most pieces show signs of being scraped, and some are deliberately flattened and engraved. A very small sample of human remains have been found, seven teeth. Measurements of these teeth, however, indicate the presence of children, which would imply women also occupied the site. Measurements of the crowns indicate the people at Blombos cave were anatomically modern. Perhaps the most hotly debated find has been 41 perforated and red-stained snail shells that Henshilwood states were strung as beads. All the holes are in the same place and show the same wear patterns, but some scholars are skeptical. The lack of beads at other nearby sites casts some doubt on the symbolism of beads being widespread.
Anatomically, modern humans almost certainly evolved in Africa more than 100,000 years ago. The origin of “modern” human behavior, however, is extensively debated. There is no consensus on the definition of “modern behavior.” Evidence for modern human behavior in Africa has been sketchy, leading to the existing model of culture developing in Europe 50,000 years ago, where sites are firmly established. In recent years, though, an increasing number of African sites have been revealing cultural and symbolic artifacts dating back more than 70,000 years, implying that symbolic thought, or culture, evolved slowly throughout the Middle Stone Age.
- Gore, R. (2000). People like us. National Geographic, 198, 90-118.
- Henshilwood, C. S., & Marean, C. (2003). The origin of modern human behavior. Current Anthropology, 44, 627-652.
- Van Bergen, B. (2004). Blombos Cave project. Cape Town, South Africa: African Heritage Research Institute. Retrieved April 28, 2005.