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Tracing the evolution of symbolically mediated behaviours within variable environments in Europe and southern Africa

Final Report Summary - TRACSYMBOLS (Tracing the evolution of symbolically mediated behaviours within variable environments in Europe and southern Africa)

The aim of the Tracsymbols project was to document the emergence of key cultural innovations in Africa and Europe between 160 ka and 25 ka years ago (ka=1000 years) and to test the influence of environmental change on this process. To achieve this goal we have 1) continued with archaeological excavations at Blombos Cave (100- 70 ka) and carried out new excavations at the nearby Klipdrift Shelter archaeological site (66-59 ka) and at Klipdrift Cave (14-9 ka) and Klipdrift Cave Lower (c. 90 ka?), all located in the southern Cape, South Africa, 2) carried out a new dating (OSL, U/Th, 14C and thermoluminescence) and a chronological reappraisal of these and other main archaeological sites in southern Africa, and 3) analysed relevant artefacts (carvings, engravings, personal ornaments, lithic, bone and wooden artefacts, pigments, pigment containers and processing tools, organic and inorganic residues) from these and other archaeological sites in Africa and Europe. These artefacts were analysed with modern analytical techniques, including optical and SEM microscopy, XRF, XRD, Raman, colorimetry, FTIR, PIXE-PIGE, Gas Chromatography-Mass Spectrometry.
We have complemented this approach with 1) the analysis of palaeoclimatic indicators reflecting the evolution of temperature, vegetation and fire regimes (pollen, foraminifera, microcharcoal, microfauna, speleothems, isotopes), 2) high resolution modelling of past climate and vegetation in both the northern and southern hemispheres, 3) the creation of georeferenced databases of the archaeological sites from this time period, and 4) applied predictive computational tools designed to combine archaeological and palaeoclimatic data with the aim of reconstructing the link between past human adaptive systems and the environments in which they evolved.
A part of our ‘Blue Sky’ research was to find a new archaeological site (or sites) that would complement or support the Blombos Cave findings. Klipdrift Shelter, a coastal cave in the De Hoop Nature Reserve, southern Cape, South Africa was selected as was Klipdrift Cave and Klipdrift Cave Lower. This area is associated with the earliest development of H. sapiens behaviour and lies 45 km west of Blombos Cave. In 2010 and 2011 we conducted new archaeological excavations at Klipdrift Cave and Klipdrift Shelter. The results from the former site are published in a Wits University PhD supervised by the PI. Significant finds at the latter site include Howiesons Poort type backed lithic segments, >40 pieces of engraved ostrich egg shell, ochre processing toolkits, and an anthropogenically modified human tooth. The published age, using the Optically Stimulated Luminescence method, for these deposits is c. 65 – 59 ka. A further archaeological site that is older than 75 ka was also discovered in this complex and named Klipdrift Cave Lower and preliminary excavations were carried out. The results from these existing and new archaeological sites in South Africa have resulted in more than 10 publications over the past 5 years and have provided significant new evidence on the behavioural evolution of H. sapiens in southern Africa.
The excavations in 2010 and 2011 at Blombos Cave, South Africa, and subsequent laboratory research, resulted in the publication of two papers in Science (2010, 2011). The first paper provides early evidence for controlled heating of stone prior to applying pressure flaking when manufacturing stone points 75 000 years ago. This is the first known use of this technique. The second paper describes the earliest evidence for the assembling of a complex toolkit to produce a pigmented substance in a container at 100 ka years ago. A paper on the 75 ka shell beads from Blombos, published in 2013 in the Journal of Human Evolution shows differences in the style of bead stringing over time suggesting early fashion trends were already in place. In 2013 the 75 ka engraved ochre and beads recovered from Blombos Cave were officially recognised as ‘Symbols of South Africa Culture’ by the South African Government. In honour of this recognition a set of stamps featuring these artefacts was issued by the South Africa Post Office in 2013. A further highlight of our research in southern Africa were the two publications on our new discoveries at Klipdrift Shelter, including the discovery of a hominid tooth and among the earliest known engravings on ostrich eggshell (65 ka).
New dating and analysis of the organic and lithic artefacts from Border Cave, South Africa, published in two articles in PNAS (2012), has identified 60 ka bone tools made of suid tusks and c. 44 ka digging sticks, poison used for hunting purposes, ostrich eggshell beads, and tiny decorated bone points likely used as arrow points. An analysis of bone tools from Sibudu Cave, South Africa, identified fully shaped bone wedges in layers older than 70 ka, the oldest formal bone tools known. Studies on pigment from the 110 – 85 ka levels at Klasies River (South Africa) identified one piece with a deliberate engraving. Research on 100 ka pigments from the site of Skhul, Israel, shows they were heated and came from distant sources. All of the discoveries above significantly increase our knowledge on the cognitive abilities of early Homo sapiens.
A number of published and ongoing analyses concern innovations developed by Neanderthals in Europe. Pigment used and engravings and bone tools made by Neanderthals at Mousterian sites from France, Spain, Italy, and the Czech Republic, dated to between 300 ka and 40 ka, were analysed, as well as bone tools used by the last Neanderthals in France and Italy. Members of our team have reappraised the stratigraphy and chronology of the Grotte du Renne, France, a key site for the debate on the nature and significance of late Neanderthals symbolic material culture. Two archaeological databases for Marine Isotope Stages 6-3, one for Europe, the other for southern Africa have been created. The European database has been used to examine the timing of the initial presence of H. sapiens populations in Europe.
The potential of eco-cultural niche modelling for studying human dispersals and cultural trajectories in the Middle Palaeolithic and the Middle Stone Age has been published. The methodology has been tuned by applying it to the Aurignacian and the Badegoulian cultures as well as to the spread of the Neolithic. Ongoing analysis of pollen from cores located in the northern and southern hemispheres have produced interesting results, including the first continuous record of the evolution of vegetation for southern Africa during MIS 6-3. Reconstruction of fire regimes shows, for the first time, that grass-fires consistently track processional cycles during the past 170 ka.