Blombos Cave is an archaeological site in South Africa. It has become the focal point in competing theories of human evolution and seems destined to dispel the euro-centric ideas that have dominated the field. While it has been accepted that anatomically modern humans originated in Africa, Blombos Cave proves that modern human behavior did as well -- as opposed to the idea anatomically modern humans emerged out of Africa, but that modern behavior arose in Europe.

Blombos Cave is located near Still Bay (Stillbaai) in the southern Cape. It is about 100 meters from the sea and 35 meters above sea level. The site was discovered and first excavated by Dr. Christopher Henshilwood in 1991 (archaeologist at the South African Museum in Cape Town and an adjunct associate professor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook). It contains excellently preserved Middle Stone Age (MSA) deposits that date to older than 70,000 years. Excavations between 1992 - 2000 have yielded finds that are directly relevant to the modern human behaviour debate.

The Middle Stone Age finds include a range of bone tools, finely crafted bifacial stone points, an engraved bone fragment and evidence for modern subsistence practices including fishing. The site has also yielded thousands of pieces of ochre. Most of these pieces have been scraped, probably to produce powder. Ochre powder has traditionally been used for ritual and/or cosmetic purposes and is often linked to symbolic behaviour; though ochre may also serve a practical function, as in the curing of hides.

But there is no practical purpose for abstract design - and several of the ochre pieces have them. These pieces have parallel lines carved into them in a cross-hatched pattern and look like European cave paintings that are only half as old.

It is a very deliberate pattern. It is not by any stretch of the imagination accidental. This is telling us people were capable of abstract thought. -- Dr. Henshilwood
Until now, modern human behavior was widely assumed to have been a very late and abrupt development that seemed to have originated in a "creative explosion" in Europe. The most spectacular evidence for it showed up after modern Homo sapiens arrived there from Africa about 40,000 years ago. There are many sites in Europe that depict this modern behavior - cave paintings, bone tools, etc. Now, we have evidence that our African ancestors were turning animal bones into tools and finely worked weapon points, a skill more advanced in concept and application than the making of the usual stone tools. They were also engraving some artifacts with symbolic marks -- manifestations of abstract and creative thought and, presumably, communication through articulate speech.

In the Eurasian Upper Palaeolithic era (about 35,000 years ago) abstract or depictional images provide evidence for cognitive abilities considered integral to modern human behavior. Abstract representations engraved on pieces of red ochre were recovered from the Middle Stone Age layers at Blombos Cave. A mean date of 77,000 years was obtained for the layers containing the engraved ochres by thermoluminescence dating…modern human behavior in Africa at least 35,000 years before the start of the Upper Palaeolithic. - Christopher S. Henshilwood, October 30, 2001.
      December 2, 2001: Artifacts in Africa Suggest An Earlier Modern Human - that was how the story broke over a month ago on the front page of the New York Times. Needless to say, however, the ramifications of the discovery have been edged aside by war, crumbling economies and Christmas shopping. However, as of January 11, 2001, with this cave site still under excavation, the press releases keep coming. “Two tiny pieces of engraved ochre are the oldest works of art ever discovered, scientists say, showing the artist in mankind was awakened, in Africa at least 77,000 years ago.”
      There is also some reason to conclude these African ancestors had acquired grammatical speech – after all, they would have required syntactic language in order to explain to others the meaning of the artwork. "Here we have a good indication of an ability to think in the abstract, to think in terms of the past, the present and the future, and that's one of the hallmarks of modern behavior. People were able to plan, " said one of the Blombos team anthropologists recently, summarizing the evidence. “Modern behavior” then (abstraction, language, planning, artistic expression and symbolic thought), on the basis of these new finds, appears to have emerged much earlier than previously believed. This was 35,000 years before more evolved Homo sapiens tool-makers emigrated to Europe, started whacking the less clever Neanderthals already there, and began decorating caves in France and Spain to spruce up the new digs.
      Anyway, back to South Africa, where finally, fish bones and skinning tools found in and about the cliff-side cave indicate there may have been 25 - 30 fishermen who used the spot overlooking the Indian Ocean as an outport base. "The artifacts were accompanied by the remains of shellfish and the bones of fish and numerous animals, including seals, dolphins, antelope, tortoises and hares, suggesting what Henshilwood described as a sophisticated economy adept at putting its tools to work," said one report. In other words, it may have been a satellite post for a larger, and as yet undiscovered center - a lost South African community predating the last Ice Age.
Sources: The Guardian : J. Meek, “World's first artwork found in Africa” -,4273,4333159,00.html. ; The Globe and Mail : K. Honey, “77,000-year-old abstract art? : Tiny pieces of etched ochre prove brainpower of early humans, scientist says” – ; Science Magazine : Christopher S. Henshilwood, et al. “Emergence of Modern Human Behavior: Middle Stone Age Engravings from South Africa” - Published online January 10 2002 ; Washington Post : "Find Fuels Debate on Origin of 'Modern' Behavior" -

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