African Bone Tools Dispute Key Idea About Human Evolution

National Geographic News
November 8, 2001
A large set of specialized bone tools found recently in a South African cave is forcing archaeologists to rethink their ideas about when "modern" human behavior emerged. The issue has been a key question in debate about human origins.

The discovery shows conclusively that early Homo sapiens come "out of Africa" with already well-developed skill in crafting tools of bone. Many archaeologists regard the introduction of bone tools as a key indicator of "modern" behavior in humans.

Dating analysis revealed that the tools are all more than 70,000 years old, which is considerably earlier than humans were thought to acquire bone technology.

Until now, scientists had concluded that early human ancestors became anatomically modern while still in Africa but lagged in modern behavioral traits until after they migrated to Europe and elsewhere.

"The implications are that there was modern human behavior in Africa about 35,000 years before Europe," said archaeologist Christopher Henshilwood, who is affiliated with Iziko–South African Museum in Cape Town and the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

"What has been suggested up until now," he said, "is that modern human behavior was a very late occurrence…that though people were anatomically modern in Africa from about 150,000 to 100,000 years ago, they remained behaviorally non-modern until about 40,000 or 50 000 years ago, when they suddenly changed and then moved into Europe and elsewhere."

Henshilwood is the lead author of a forthcoming study that argues, based on the bone tools and other recent discoveries, that "behavioral modernity" first evolved in Africa and has a much longer history than most archaeologists believe. The study is scheduled for publication in the December issue of the Journal of Human Evolution.

Ancient Tool Industry

The study involves a detailed description of 28 bone tools and related artifacts that were recovered from Blombos Cave, in a cliff overlooking the Indian Ocean at the southernmost tip of South Africa.

Although other bone tools of about the same age have been discovered at other sites in Africa, the findings have been single tools or the context has been disputed. The artifacts from Blombos provide the first indisputable evidence of an existing Middle Stone Age bone tool industry, the researchers say.

Scattered within the layers in which the stone tools were found and in layers above it were double-faced stone points, possibly used as spearheads. Similar stone points found at other sites in the southern Cape date to about 65,000 years ago, which suggests that the Blombos bone tools are at least as old.

Furthermore, the geologic layers have distinctively different kinds of sediments that helped the scientists determine the period in which the bone tools and other materials were deposited.

By comparing the layers with those at other archaeological sites in South Africa, the researchers concluded that the bone tools were used somewhat earlier than the Last Glacial, 60,000 to 70,000 years ago, when the ocean withdrew further from the current coastline.

Direct dating of the sediments and the materials they contain is now being done.

One of Many Indicators

Stone tools are regarded as a significant indicator of modern human behavior because of the skill and labor involved in producing them, and because they generally signify a shift toward more specialized toolmaking. "In Europe, prior to 35,000 years ago, people did not make formal bone tools," said Curtis W. Marean of the Institute of Human Origins at Arizona State University, a co-author of the study. "After that, bone and antler become favorite raw materials, and even stone tools become 'more formal' tools, with regular shapes and specialized uses."

The existence of bone and other "formal" tools is frequently included among a list of traits or archaeological details widely regarded as indicators that Stone Age and Upper Paleolithic populations practiced modern human behavior. Other indicators include the hunting of large fish, the use of decoration, and the production of art—all of which offer evidence of symbolic thinking.

The excavations at Blombos Cave and other similar sites have also yielded substantial quantities of ochre, a mineral compound that aboriginal peoples frequently use for body decoration. "More than 8,000 pieces of ochre were brought to the site and were used almost certainly for symbolic purposes," said Henshilwood.

Extensive evidence from European sites, he explained, has pointed to an Upper Paleolithic "symbolic explosion" that archaeologists have considered the best recorded beginning of modern human behavior, about 35,000 years ago. "The evidence from [Blombos] cave, together with other evidence coming from other sites, is now starting to say to us that this is very questionable," said Henshilwood. "We're seeing evidence of a comparable change in Africa, but in the Middle Stone Age—more than twice as far back in time."

New Picture Emerging?

The scientists see the artifacts from Blombos Cave as only the first clues in what they say is likely to be an extensive body of evidence for early behavioral modernity in Africa. They expect further evidence to come from a number of digs that are still underway or from which the findings have not yet been published.

Europe has been extensively excavated in the last century, providing much information for archaeologists to draw on, Henshilwood pointed out. Yet, "right now we are only scraping the surface of information about pre-historic Africa," he said. "Africa is geographically enormous when compared to western Europe, but it has been excavated properly only for a very short period, and very few sites in Africa have really been well dug."

Marean said the rapidly growing evidence is beginning to put behavioral evolution in step with anatomical development. "I think that when we start to get a big sample," he said, "the picture of modern human evolution is going to look very different."

The other co-authors of the impending scientific paper on the bone tool discovery are Francesco d'Errico of the Institut de Prehistoire et de Geologie du Quaternaire, Richard G. Milo of Chicago State University, and Royden Yates of Iziko–South African Museum.

The research was supported by grants from more than half a dozen cultural and scientific organizations, including the National Geographic Society.

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