Fascinating Finds From South Africa

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December 19, 2011

Reports from South Africa in recent months have shed new light on the activities of members of our species at critical junctures in human evolution.  The first of these was a series of papers elaborating upon the initial announcement of the discovery of a new species(Au. sediba) which is said to be possibly an example of early Homo; this was followed by further evidence of the use of ochre as decoration; and in the past two weeks evidence of using tree boughs as bedding material.

Details on Au. sediba. Discovered in 2009 at a site called Malapa and announced the following year, Australopithecus sediba is represented by remarkably complete skeletons of an adult female and a juvenile male. Attribution to the genus Australopithecus caused intense discussions among scientists because while the post crania are clearly australopithecine but the teeth and cranium exhibit features regarded by some scientists as clearly Homo. Click the link to a paper by Fred Spoor entitled "Malapa and the genus Homo"   for a glimpse into this lively discussion. See also the 2010 article about Au. sediba found on this website.  Much more detail was published in September of this year and can be found in Science

Ochre. In 2007 there came one of those announcements of which it can be said truly “the textbooks will have to be rewritten”.  A team working at pinnacle point on the South African coast east of Cape Town reported evidence of the use of shell fish as a food source and the use of ochre for body decoration.  The dating was remarkably early: 164,000 years ago (OSL).  In a recent paper also appearing in the journal Science we learn of a further ochre find, in this case from Blombas Cave, between Pinnacle Point and Cape Town.  This was announced by Christopher Henshilwood and his team and they established the dating by the OSL technique to be around 100,000 years ago.  The remarkable aspect of this find was uncovering two abalone shells used as vessels for the preparation of the ochre. Curtis Marean leads the work at Pinnacle Point and he says of the Bombas Cave finds, "This is a fabulous result that provides insights on how the ochre was processed.  I think the dating looks great. "

Bedding material. In an announcement published earlier this month, the journal Science describes the paper this way: “Early humans constructed sleeping mats from local plants, including some with insecticidal properties.”  Lyn Wadley et al. summarized their paper as follows:

“The Middle Stone Age (MSA) is associated with early behavioral innovations, expansions of modern humans within and out of Africa, and occasional population bottlenecks. Several innovations in the MSA are seen in an archaeological sequence in the rock shelter Sibudu...[near Durban on the east coast of South Africa].. At ~77,000 years ago, people constructed plant bedding from sedges and other monocotyledons topped with aromatic leaves containing insecticidal and larvicidal chemicals. Beginning at ~73,000 years ago, bedding was burned, presumably for site maintenance. By ~58,000 years ago, bedding construction, burning, and other forms of site use and maintenance intensified, suggesting that settlement strategies changed. Behavioral differences between ~77,000 and 58,000 years ago may coincide with population fluctuations in Africa.“