Archaeologists in South Africa have recently unearthed some of the earliest evidence of human behavior – a cache of ostrich eggs dating back 60,000 years, etched with intricate geometric designs.
The abstract carvings are signs of what archaeologists call ‘symbolic thinking,’ a capacity particular to Homo sapiens. Unlike earlier hominids, our brains allow usto affix meaning to objects, to draw associations, to recognize and create symbols.
Symbolic thinking is the roots ofwriting, language and art; it is,to risk grandiosity, what makes us human.
So when the team at Diepkloof Rock Shelter, led by prehistorianPierre-Jean Texier, dug up the60,000-year-old decorated ostrich eggs, they knew they’d found something special. The eggs suggest that we ‘became human’ – i.e. started creating art, decorating objects and thinking symbolically – 20,000 earlier than scholars had originally thought.
The Creative Explosion Theory – Blasted
Until the 1990s, the accepted date for the dawn of modern thought was give-or-take 40,000 years ago. Homo sapiens, so the theories went, were anatomically modern by 200,000 years ago in Africa, but they didn’t adopt modern cognitive behavior until after they arrived in Europe. The stunning late Upper Paleolithic cave paintings at Chauvet,and Lascaux(Chauvetdates back roughly 35,000 years), were evidence of what scholars called a ‘creative explosion’. This, experts surmised, was the moment in history when language, art, and symbolic thinking converged in a great burst of cognitive power. It was, in other words, when humankind became human.
These theories held until strange outliers started turning up at archaeological digs in Africa. Namely at a site called Blombos Cave, located about 180 miles east of Capetown, South Africa. Between 1991 and 2002, State University of New York (Stony Brook) archaeologist Christopher Henshilwood uncovered a treasure trove of artifacts which pointed to early symbolic thinking. Among other things, his team found tiny decorative mollusk beads and complex bone tool kits. Most remarkable, though, were pieces of ochre inscribed with a grid of elaborate geometric patterns. Given the complex nature of the designs, and the fact that ochre is a soft material, unsuitable for practical uses like tool-making, Henshilwood asserted that the etched ochre was a case of decoration, and evidence of complex thought. He went one step further with his hypothesis, suggesting that the intricate cross-hatched designs “could have been interpreted by those people as having meaning that would have been understood by others.” In other words, they were based on language.
But the part that had the scientific community scratching its head was the age of the finds: the stratum of rock from which these objects were excavated was dated between 77,000 and 70,000 years. That’s about 40,000 years earlier than the gooey-sounding “creative explosion” in Europe. Of course, these little cross-hatches didn’t hold a candle to the masterpieces in Chauvet and Lascaux. But the implications of the find were no less astounding. Talk about an altered timeline: according to the discoveries at Blombos, our ancestors had been behaving and thinking like modern humans for twice as long as scholars thought. Nevermind the holes this theory exposed in an entirely Euro-centric version of the history of humankind.
Creative Expression… or First Signs of Language?
Of course, there were doubts about the finds at Blombos. Steve Kuhn, anthropologist at the University of Arizona told the BBC back in 2002, “I’d be more comfortable if there were more of these engraved stones; if these alleged symbols were found many times in different places. It is possible they were just doodlings that really didn’t mean anything.”
Which is why the recent find at Diepkloof is so significant. The decorated ostrich eggs bolster Henshilwood’s assertion that the abstract designs scratched into the ochre at Blombos were not haphazard doodles, but evidence of Middle Stone Age symbolic thinking. The team at Diepkloof, which has been digging at the site since 1999, has unearthed shards from approximately 25 ostrich eggs across 18 archaeological layers, dated between 55,000 and 65,000 years ago. However rudimentary the scratchmarks, the team is convinced that they display complex order. Not only do the decorations show varying styles, including parallel lines with cross-hatches (like rail-road tracks) and repetitive non-parallel lines, but the styles appear to evolve over time. The railroad track motif, for example, appears only in the earliest 12 layers of the site, then disappears.
The greatest evidence for symbolism in these markings, though, is that a number of the fragments were intentionally pierced with a tool to bore a hole in the top part of the egg. Texier and his team take this as evidence that these large eggs, which had a volume of roughly one litre, were used as canteens, a practice they recognized from historic hunter-gatherers in the Kalahari desert. The same way we might put labels on the sugar and coffee jars in the kitchen, the Kalahari tribes decorated their eggs with markings to denote their contents or ownership. If, 60,000 years ago, Middle Stone Age hunter-gatherers at Diepkloof were doing the same, then, as the team has said, the ostrich eggs [represent] the earliest evidence of the existence of a graphic tradition among prehistoric hunter-gatherer populations. Not to mention that they extend the history of humankind by 20,000 years.