In a paper published in the Journal of Human Evolution, Christopher Henshilwood, Francesco d’Errico and Ian Watts report on their recent findings at Blombos, following on from the 2002 excavations which revealed what were then the earliest known example of humans having deliberately incised patterns into chunks of red ochre, some time aroundLine_designs 77,000 years ago.

Here’s the abstract of their paper…

Powerful categories of evidence for symbolically mediated behaviour, variously described as ‘modern’ or ‘cognitively modern’ human behaviour, are geometric or iconographic representations. After 40,000 years ago such evidence is well documented in much of the Old World and is widely considered as typifying ‘modern human culture,’ but earlier evidence is rare. In Africa, this includes two deliberately engraved ochre pieces from c. 75,000 year old levels at Blombos Cave, Western Cape, South Africa and the greater than 55,000 year old incised ostrich egg shell from the Diepkloof shelter, located in the same province.

Here we report on thirteen additional pieces of incised ochre recovered from c. 75,000–100,000 year old levels at Blombos Cave. These finds, taken together with other engraved objects reported from other southern African sites, suggest that symbolic intent and tradition were present in this region at an earlier date than previously thought.

These finds come from the same site as the 2002 finds, apparently from sediments dated 72 kya, 77 kya and 100 kya respectively – intriguingly there are plans to investigate even older levels, the finds being described thus at Science News

A microscopic analysis indicates that ochre designs were made by holding a piece of pigment with one hand while impressing lines into the pigment with the tip of a stone tool. On several pieces, patterns covered areas that had first been ground down.    Geometric patterns on the ochre pieces include cross-hatched designs, branching lines, parallel lines and right angles.  Pigment powder had also been removed from many of the recovered ochre chunks. Incised patterns may have served as models for pigment designs applied to animal skins or other material, the scientists speculate.

These latest finds have further fuelled the debate between what exactly defines modern human behaviour, with the authors opining that as a deliberate effort was made to convey meaning by incising the stone, and that moreover, this practice was passed on over the next 25,000 years (presumably to the more recent Blombos material), modern behaviour can be ascribed.

There are objections to this theory, most notably from Nicholas Conard, who was in the news recently, following his discovery of an Aurignacian figurine from Hohle Fels, Swabia in Germany, who counters that fully modern behaviour of this type only emerged when anatomically modern humans began creating figurative art at the Middle/Upper Palaeolithic boundary.

For their part, Henshilwood and d’Errico maintain that people of the Early Upper Palaeolithic were merely drawing on a long-established symbolic tradition which had already been in place for over 60,000 years.

“What makes the Blombos engravings different is that some of them appear to represent a deliberate will to produce a complex abstract design,” Henshilwood says. “We have not before seen well-dated and unambiguous traces of this kind of behavior at 100,000 years ago.”

However, it’s not clear whether any artistic or symbolic behaviour can definitely be attributed to these chunks of ochre – if, for example the ochre itself was used for applying a dash of colour to another medium, it’s hard to imagine why the artists should have wanted or felt the need to decorate their raw material. For all we know, the person doing the inscribing may have been delegated with grinding up the ochre, before it was taken away to be used elsewhere by others present, leaving the grinder alone, to the extent he or she became bored, and started doodling with what was nearest to hand, in this case a sharp piece of stone applied to the ochre. Perhaps more detailed images will offer some further clue as to their perceived complexity, and whether any element of overall design can be determined from the artefacts.

However, the fact that the authors make reference to unidentified sites elsewhere in the region which have yielded similar artefacts, and moreover that the crossed lines on one of the depicted chunks of ochre strongly resembles the 2002 Blombos find, would seem to suggest that this was much more than mere doodling, though why this specific method of incising should have persisted for so long is puzzling, unless of course the same message or signal was being conveyed through all those tens of millennia, although of course that gets us no nearer to guessing what those signs might have been, or why they were considered so important.

One cultural, or at least communal event that would have remained the same over all that time would have impacted on communities would have been death, and it’s tempting to suggest that some kind of funerary or mortuary practice was involved. We know that death and the dead have on some occasions preoccupied humans from burials going back all the way through the Upper Palaeolithic, and ochre use in association with the bones of the dead, wasn’t  unknown to all.

Such is the ostensible simplicity of the incised lines, it seems faintly possible that if older finds are made in the vicinity, they might be even more complex in their design, if we assume that sufficient cognitive ability and manual dexterity were present in those individuals alive 100,000 years ago at Blombos.

On a related note, John Hawks has some related and cogent comment on demography and the emergence of modern behaviour in his post, Learning, population size, and “modern human behavior”, in which he reflects on another recent paper, “Late Pleistocene Demography and the Appearance of Modern Human Behavior.”, mentioned elsewhere on this blog.


Engraved Ochres From The Middle Stone Age Levels At Blombos Cave, South Africa

Christopher S. Henshilwood, Francesco D’errico, Ian Watts
Journal of Human Evolution (31 May 2009)