Research Press Release

Human evolution: Inland evidence for early human behaviour


April 1, 2021

Evidence of complex behaviour by early modern humans at an inland site in southern Africa is reported in a Nature study. The findings challenge the dominant view that the complex behaviours of Homo sapiens emerged in coastal environments.

The earliest evidence to date for the use of symbolic resources — such as ochre pigments, non-food shells and decorated artefacts — by modern humans comes from a variety of coastal sites in Africa that date back to between 125,000 and 70,000 years ago.

Jayne Wilkins and colleagues report the discovery of archaeological material dated to approximately 105,000 years ago from the Ga-Mohana Hill North Rockshelter in South Africa in the southern Kalahari Desert, some 600 km inland. The artefacts include calcite crystals that are thought to have been deliberately collected and brought to the site, and that have no obvious utilitarian purpose. They also found fragments of ostrich egg shell, which may represent the remains of containers that were used to store water.

Although previous studies of ancient Kalahari sites have indicated the presence of early humans, none have reported well-dated evidence for complex human behaviours such as the collection of non-utilitarian objects and use of containers. The authors suggest that behavioural innovations by modern humans in inland southern Africa did not lag behind those of populations near the coast.

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