- The Washington Times - Friday, January 11, 2002

Bits of African stone etched with intricate patterns and dated at 77,000 years old suggest ancient humans were capable of complex behavior and abstract thought thousands of years earlier than believed.
Pieces of crafted ochre, a stone used for carving and for making pigment powder, have been uncovered from the floor of a seaside cave in South Africa. Researchers believe the markings indicate that people living there in ancient times were practicing "modern behavior."
The find pushes back by more than 35,000 years the earliest time when biologically modern humans were known to have developed modern behavior, said Christopher S. Henshilwood, first author of a study that appears today on Sciencexpress, the online version of the journal Science.
"The theory up until now has been that modern human behavior started only around 40,000 years ago," said Mr. Henshilwood, a researcher at State University of New York at Stony Brook and at the Iziko Museum of Cape Town, South Africa.
He said a list drawn up 30 years ago by archaeologists suggested that the yardstick for modern behavior among ancient people should include evidence of the ability to make bone tools; to produce art, such as cave paintings; and to develop the fairly complex technology needed to catch food, such as fish.
Such factors, the experts decided, would suggest that the ancient people had a modern ability to reason, to create, to organize and to plan.
Until now, it was believed that such modern behavior first appeared in Europe.
But Mr. Henshilwood said discoveries in the Blombos Cave east of Cape Town on the Indian Ocean show that modern human behavior developed in Africa earlier than in Europe.
He said the cave contains thousands of pieces of worked ochre, along with polished bone tools and many bones from fish all signs of modern behavior.
"The whole of South Africa was occupied by a biologically modern people who had evolved about 150,000 years ago," Mr. Henshilwood said.
"There is no doubt that the people in southern Africa were behaviorally modern 70,000 years ago."
The engraved stone artifacts found in the cave include two pieces of red ochre that had been rubbed on one side to make a flat smooth surface. Ancient craftsmen then carved intricate geometric patterns, cross hatching and diamonds, and chiseled lines that crossed through and around the carving.
"The engraving itself is quite a complex geometric pattern. There is a system to the patterns," Mr. Henshilwood said.
He said more than 8,000 other pieces of ochre were found in the cave, many of which had been rubbed smooth as if to make pigment powder.
"We think the powder was mixed with animal fat and applied to their bodies as a decoration or to artifacts such as skin bags," Mr. Henshilwood said.
The ochre stone, he said, was mined at a site almost 20 miles away. There were other colors of the stone at the mine, but Mr. Henshilwood said there was evidence that the ancient people concentrated on the red pigment.
Use of the pigment may have been used in rituals, marking such things as puberty or childbirth, he said.
Very few sites where ancient modern people may have lived in Africa have been excavated, he said, but he believes that eventually more evidence will be found to confirm the level of civilized practices on that continent 70,000 years ago.
This is in contrast to Europe, where thousands of ancient sites have been excavated and there is a rich collection of artifacts proving that modern behavior existed there about 40,000 years ago.
Two separate scientific teams chemically dated the artifacts at the caves, confirming that the artifacts were left in deposits that were about 77,000 years old.
Steve Kuhn, a University of Arizona scientist who specializes in research on ancient people, said the South African study was "very good work by some very serious researchers."
But he said more evidence of engraved stones must be found before the research community accepts Mr. Henshilwood's conclusions.
"I'd be more comfortable if there were more of these engraved stones, if these alleged symbols were found many times in different places," Mr. Kuhn said. "It is possible they were just doodlings that really didn't mean anything."

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