Sunday Times, November, 2018
Sitting on some rocks along South Africa’s Cape coast, I realise I could never go hungry here. Shell fish and crustaceans line the pools; mussels carpet the rocks; you can hardly put your foot down without stepping on small limpets, and on the seaward edge of the rocks much larger limpets trap kelp fronds swept in from the sea. As I wade into the shallows, snails, octopods, sea cucumbers and alikreukel can be plucked from the sea bed. There is so much at hand it would only take me a few minutes to feed, perhaps an hour if I was picky.
Now imagine the scale of life on this shore thousands of years ago. It would have been stupendous. Ancient people probably needed no more than an hour or two to forage each day. So what did they do with the rest of their time? The answer might be in the text you are reading right now.
The words we construct are essentially symbols. You can trace their journey back through the hieroglyphics of Egypt, the clay tablets of Mesopotamia, and further back to the rock art of Western Europe, the oldest being the figurative paintings of Chauvet Cave in France, dated 36 000 years ago. One of the accepted archeological signs of modern behaviour is the creation of art and jewellery, and in the expression of both you have the origins of symbolic thinking.
“For most of the 20th century, scientists believed that behaviourally modern humans evolved rapidly at around 40 000 years ago in Europe,” says archaeologist Christopher Henshilwood. “This event has been described as a ’Symbolic Explosion’ and is associated, among others, with the first-known abilities to create jewellery, cave paintings and small statuettes of rich fertility goddesses.”
Now discoveries by Henshilwood and his team of archaeologists casts our thinking much further back, to the very shore I am walking on in South Africa.
Jewellery, abstract art and chemistry
In Blombos Cave, 300km east of Cape Town, Henshilwood and archaeologist Cedric Poggenpoel unearthed something extraordinary in 1993. While excavating Later Stone Age tools dating between 300 and 2 000 years old, they dug through a layer of sand and found Middle Stone Age tools between 72 000 and 100 000 thousand years old indicating that Homo sapiens had inhabited this cave much earlier than thought. Further excavations uncovered shells from alikreukel, brown mussels, snail shells and bones from other marine species such as seals and fish. Groups of shells had holes pierced in them at identical points, indicating they were threaded on cord to make necklaces. Analysis dated the shells to 75 000 years ago - 35 000 years before the paintings in Chauvet Cave in France.
In 2008, an excavation of the cave’s lower level dated 100 000 years old, revealed another set of remarkable shells. “We came across an abalone shell with a large flat cobble placed neatly inside. When we gently lifted the cobble out of the shell, we discovered a red ochre compound lay within the shell,” says Henshilwood. A second abalone shell with bright red residue on the inner surface was found in the same layer; seal and antelope bones with traces of ochre were discovered alongside, as well as ochre-stained stone tools. Over 8 000 pieces of ochre were eventually discovered in the cave, the most remarkable of which have been engraved with abstract geometric designs in what is arguably a symbolic depiction. Dated between 70 000 and 100 000 years old, they are among the first pieces of abstract art.
It’s known that ochre has been used for over 200 000 years as a paint, but it was not until this discovery that they understood how it was made.
The quartz cobble that fitted within the first abalone shell had wear marks indicating it was used as a hammer or grinder. The red compound within the shell consisted of two types of ochre, fragments of crushed spongy bone once rich in fat and marrow, some of which had been burnt. The compound also contained charcoal, quartz flakes and the remains of microfauna and marine life. It was an ancient chemistry set, and Blombos Cave was the factory.
Within both shells, an orange ring stain with traces of ochre and calcite was visible, indicating they were used as containers for liquid - paint containers, if you will. “They provide the oldest known evidence for the use of containers and for the production of an ochre rich pigment or paint,” says Henshilwood.
Close study showed ochre residues inside some of the necklace beads, indicating they were deliberately painted, or that the ochre was transferred when the necklaces were worn on skin or clothes.
"You could look at what someone was wearing and understand who they were and what message they were trying to get across to you"
“Self-awareness, or self-recognition, is implied by the wearing of personal ornaments and was likely an important factor in cognitive evolution,” explains Henshilwood. “Syntactical language would have been essential for the sharing and transmission of the symbolic meaning of personal ornaments within and between groups.”
Ornaments gave people the ability to store information outside of the human brain. You could look at what someone was wearing and understand who they were and what message they were trying to get across to you. “That is the basis of all our writing to day, it’s the basis of our computers today, it’s the basis of everything we use as symbols today.”
Because of Henshilwood's discovery, the evolutionary birth place of modern humans has been shifted from Europe to South Africa at a time before Homo sapiens left the continent. So why did we live here, and why did this location stimulate such an awakening?
My walk along the shore is guided by Craig Foster, a man who has been diving off False Bay near Cape Town every day for seven years. Foster dives in this cold water without a wet suit or air tanks to emulate the way ancient humans would have hunted in these waters. Diving with him is like diving with a marine animal - he is completely in tune with the ocean and the marine life surrounding him. If Henshilwood is revealing the truth about our origins, Foster is actively returning to our origins.
He lifts rocks along the beach to reveal thousands of small creatures; the diversity is astounding - these are worlds entire. We dive down to the sea bed and I marvel at how easy it is for Foster to spot an octopus buried beneath the sand by reading the signs it leaves from its diet of shellfish. A cat shark pokes its head out of a rocky lair; we see crabs and alikruekel, sea cucumbers and slugs; a shy shark becomes catatonic with fright when it sees us, curling in on itself and sinking to the bottom. Our walk and dive take about two hours in total. If we were foraging for food we would have had enough for a small family by then.
"You no longer have to spend 12 hours a day wandering across the landscape looking for something to eat"
Before the evolution of modern humans, archaic Homo sapiens probably spent the entire day hunting and foraging for food, and they probably starved a lot. “But once the technology of Homo sapiens became good enough, once their spears or bows and arrows were in place, once they were smart enough to trap animals, understand animal psychology, the more successful they would have become at hunting,” says Henshilwood. “You no longer have to spend 12 hours a day wandering across the landscape looking for something to eat.”
What our ancestors did with the rest of the day is open to speculation. We may have chatted, socialised, invented, explored. One of the environments we did explore was the ocean. Henshilwood is confident that we were waders back then, searching the shallows for food, spearing fish, trapping them. There is no way to be sure, but perhaps we went even deeper and dived down to the sea bed where the largest seafood lived, like octopus and abalone.
After the dive we return to Foster’s house overlooking the ocean. We chat about the diversity of life along the shore, the possibilities afforded ancient humans here, and the way we evolved to become what we are.
“Back then it was a tough but magnificent existence,” says Foster. “The Cape’s mild climate and variety of caves were well suited to human habitation. There were very few parasites, no malaria, tsetse fly or bilharzia, and they had an abundance of food from the ocean and land. The numbers of creatures and things you saw would have been tremendous. If you add it all up, in many ways today we are paupers compared to them.”
Foster has been working closely with Henshilwood to express the wonder of our origins to local people. As a filmmaker, he has recreated vivid scenes of Homo sapiens’ lifestyles back then, and Henshilwood has mentored Foster in the science. “I’ve spent three years with him understanding this stuff, walking the coast with him. He’s not the type of archaeologist who sits behind a computer.”
"The first science, art and chemistry were invented here by Africans and then taken out of Africa to the rest of the world"
Much of the incredible knowledge of pre-history along this shore remains within the scientific community. Foster and Henshilwood are finding ways to represent it to the public so they can appreciate just how incredible the human species is. Most of all, they want to inspire Africans.
“We are all African. Every one of us are related to one another. There is no such thing as race. There is no need for xenophobia. We should pull together. We should work together, because we are one group of people who come from this region,” says Henshilwood.
Foster adds, “It has potential for developing massive pride in Africa by Africans. It shows that the first computers, the first science, art and chemistry were invented here by Africans and then taken out of Africa to the rest of the world.”
Their new Human Origins exhibition uses the latest technology to transport us back to that astounding period in our evolution. Multimedia displays and audio effects wash over you as you journey through the displays. Foster’s filmic recreations of our ancestors fill screens at opposite ends of the exhibition, the main screen comprising an astounding number of shells and bones representing specimens from Blombos Cave. Exact replicas of the artefacts our ancestors used and created are on display - their chemistry sets, shell necklaces and abstract art in ochre; stone and bone tools. Curated by Foster, Petro Keene and Jos Thorne and directed by Henshilwood and the University of Witwatersrand, it is a transformative and emboldening experience if you are an African, equally so if you are human. Spier Wine Estate near Cape Town is hosting the exhibition until the end of August 2018 after which it will move Iziko Museum in Cape Town.
The San and the time machine
As we chat Foster and I agree that much of the popular literature today leads people to believe that we were a primitive, brutish creature that evolved into the “wonderful” creature that we are today. “But it’s exactly the opposite,” says Foster. “It’s a massive disservice to young people who are led to believe that violence is in our DNA. The truth is we lived for hundreds of thousands of years in tremendous balance with nature. It’s only in a very short time, thanks to agriculture and the industrial revolution, that we have become so destructive.”
That we became such an intelligent species, yet we overexploit the resources that sustains us is an irony not lost on me, but perhaps I’m thinking of the wrong humans: the ones that left Africa.
Foster and Henshilwood’s theories are supported by studies of the San “Bushmen” of Southern Africa. Research shows that Homo sapiens migrated out of Africa about 80 000 - 60 000 years ago equipped with a modern capacity for symbolic thinking, including language. But before Homo sapiens left Africa, it is believed the San population split from other populations between 108 000 and 157 000 years ago. Some of their genes were inevitably present in the humans that left the African continent, but they never all left.
"The agricultural revolution was sort of an accidental one, and once we developed it we became hostage to it"
A 1960’s study by anthropologist Richard B Lee of the Ju/’hoansi Bushmen of the Kalahari revealed that they made a good living from hunting and gathering and did so on the basis of just 15 hours of work per week. Anthropologist James Suzman, who also studied the Ju/’hoansi, looks at our obsession with work as a product of the agricultural revolution about 10 000 years ago which placed a premium on labour. “The agricultural revolution was sort of an accidental one, and once we developed it we became hostage to it,” he says. “The population became hostage to its own growth, and this has shaped a huge amount of the economic and intellectual architecture of our modern culture. We’re still obsessed with growing, even when there’s not much room left to grow in.”
The hunter-gatherer lifestyle of the San meant they took as much as they needed, and no more. “This was possible because, above all, they were – and still are – ‘fiercely egalitarian’,” says Suzman. “They could not abide inequality or showing off and had no formalised leadership institutions. Men and women enjoyed equal decision-making powers, children played largely non-competitive games in mixed age groups, and the elderly, while treated with great affection, were not afforded any special privileges. This in turn meant that no-one bothered to accumulate wealth or influence, and never over-exploited their marginal environment.”
The accident of the agricultural revolution put paid to that. Property and power became the benchmark of society.
If longevity is the benchmark of a content, balanced society and an amiable yet productive way of life, the San (aka early Homo sapiens) are among the most successful in prehistory.
For more than 100 000 years they had food, they had shelter, and they had time to feed their imagination. Perhaps they imagined a perfect world.
Looking out over the ocean on South Africa’s coast, it is possible to imagine a perfect world - if you cut out the traffic and aircraft noise, the regimented railway line skirting the coast, and the aspirational houses butting the shore. But dive beneath the surface and it becomes a reality. You enter a living time machine. I see now why Foster returns here every day.