Project details

The TRACSYMBOLS project is funded by the European Research Council under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013) / ERC grant agreement n° 249587.

Start Date: 2010-04-01

Duration: 60 months

Project Funding from the ERC: 2.5 million euro.

Professor Christopher S. Henshilwood, the Principal Investigator, based at the Department of Archaeology, History, Cultural Studies and Religion at the University of Bergen and the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa, together with his research partner of many years, co-Principal Investigator Professor Francesco d’Errico from the University of Bordeaux, have established an interdisciplinary research team in Norway, France and South Africa who are combining existing and new archaeological data with palaeoclimatic results emanating from the introduction of several innovative methodologies.

A major research challenge in archaeology is identifying when and how symbols were used for the first time to mediate hominin behaviour. Once in place this innovation provided an ability to share, store, and transmit coded information and played a crucial role in creating the social conventions and identities that now characterise human societies.

Recent archaeological discoveries in some regions of Africa suggest symbols were an inherent part of H. sapiens behaviour by at least 75 ka in the Middle Stone Age (MSA). However, the recent application of high resolution dating techniques to the archaeological data suggests that symbolic material culture occurs only sporadically after 75 ka and is a regular feature only after 30 ka. This evidence contradicts the idea that symbolic behaviour, once acquired, became a regular feature of human culture. This punctuated pattern has been attributed to the relatively small number of excavated sites in Africa. Another possibility is that the variable climates that characterised the Late Pleistocene had a major effect on the continuity of key cultural innovations. The adaptive responses of Homo to changing climates is however poorly understood; researching the role of climate in shaping the cognitive evolution of H. sapiens is therefore a priority.

A key aspect of the project is examining how environmental change may have affected the behavioural patterns of Homo sapiens and Neanderthals in southern parts of Africa and Europe during, respectively, the Middle Stone Age and Mousterian/Chatelperronian.

Francesco (left) and Christopher in the lab in Cape Town

Painting by Bruce Rimmel. “Blombos We are All South-African”