SOUTH AFRICA: Early evidence of symbolic behaviour

Recent archaeological findings of engraved ochre pieces from the Blombos Cave 300 kilometres east of Cape Town look set to stimulate further scientific debate on the origins of human behaviour.

Heated debate surrounds the earliest origins of human behaviour that is considered modern and the Blombos Cave research is among the oldest known evidence of the production and use of symbolic material culture. Between 2002 and 2008, the European Science Foundation funded a project titled Origins of Man, Languages and Language that sought early evidence of symbolism, including the origin of syntactical language.

As a result of this research a volume edited by d'Errico et al. will shortly be published by Benjamins Publishers, Amsterdam.

Henshilwood said excavation of levels older than 100,000 years at Blombos Cave was likely to produce more surprises while new excavations would start at two other Middle Stone Age sites in the same region. These might corroborate some of the remarkable evidence of early human behaviour evident at Blombos.

* Jan Petter Myklebust is deputy research director at the University of Bergen