105,000 years ago in the Kalahari desert, people invented a complex culture
Between 125,000 and 70,000 years ago, people started doing very modern things: picking up small items for no practical reason, decorating things with pigments, and storing water and maybe even food in containers. . The oldest known sites with evidence of these behaviors are found along the southern African coastline. Today most of these important sites lie directly on the coast, but even during the Pleistocene when the sea level was lower, they would have been close enough that the people who lived there could use the marine resources. .
And according to one idea in paleoanthropology, something about this way of life enabled these early people – or maybe prompted them – to innovate. Their distant neighbors who lived far from the sea were reportedly behind cultural times. But Griffith University archaeologist Jayne Wilkins and colleagues recently uncovered evidence that landlocked people were just as hip and modern as their counterparts on the coast.
Mark one for the hover country
At Ga-Mohana Hill North Rockshelter, there is a layer of sediment dating from 105,000 years ago and dotted with stone tools. In it, Wilkins and his colleagues found a large chunk of red ocher, worn flat and streaked on both sides, as if it had been used as a pigment. The rock shelter also contained a cache of translucent white calcite crystals, which had not been worked or used as tools; it seemed that someone had picked up the crystals just for the sake of having them, or perhaps as a ritual offering. Several pieces of broken and burnt ostrich eggshell, buried in the same layer, may have already contained water reserves.
The Ga-Mohana Hill artifacts are roughly the same age as the oldest similar finds on the coast, according to optically stimulated luminescence dating, which measures when quartz grains in the sediment were last exposed to light – in this case, about 105,000 years ago. It was around the same time that the inhabitants of the southern African coast began collecting seashells for no apparent practical purpose, while the inhabitants of Diepkloof Rockshelter in South Africa stored their water in the oldest containers. of known ostrich eggshells.
It sounds like an almost ridiculously simple idea for a 21st human century: If you put things in a larger object, you can transport it more easily and store it for later. But we’ve had the advantage of at least 200,000 years to figure out how to do things. At one point in our distant prehistoric times, containers were an amazing new idea. It would have been, as Wilkins and colleagues put it, “a crucial innovation for early humans.”
The conclusion of these findings is that the inhabitants of the interior of Africa were not at all behind the coastal cultures. Some of the most important innovations in human prehistory occurred in several parts of the continent around the same time.
Testing the coastal hypothesis
If you’re not an archaeologist, it may seem obvious that the people living inland could be just as innovative as the people living on the coast, but all the evidence that archaeologists have so far told a story. different. The oldest traces of a whole series of new human behaviors (at the time) have all been found at sites relatively close to the coast. Inside Africa, in places like the Kalahari Basin, we found evidence that people were present around 100,000 years ago, but there is no evidence that they were storing their water in shells. eggs, colored objects with pigments or picked up shiny objects.
But according to Wilkins and his colleagues, it has more to do with geology than with what people actually did in the distant past. “Stratified Upper Pleistocene sites with good preservation and robust chronologies are rare within southern Africa,” they wrote in their recent article. The result is what they describe as a “strong bias towards coastal sites which marginalizes the role of inland populations,” which, in their words, “[has] always been problematic.
The Ga-Mohana Hill North Rockshelter artifacts are the earliest evidence that people living far from the coast invented some key cultural concepts around the same time as those living on the coast. And that tells us something important about our past: A lot of people, in a lot of different environments, have found similar solutions to similar problems and things that they care about.
Nature, DOI 2021: 10.1038 / s41586-021-03419-0 (About DOIs).