Prof. Christopher S. Henshilwood
Principal Investigator

CV & Selection of published Papers

I believe that ground breaking results in the field of modern human evolution in Africa result from the discovery and excavation of new sites. Combined with the precision excavation techniques that I have developed, and the application of theoretical approaches and analytical methods developed in tandem with a multi-disciplinary team, we have over 20 years, changed or refined the interpretation of the earliest instances of complex human behaviour and imposed new standards on the analysis of prehistoric material culture. I have published wide ranging papers on the origins of language and symbolism; the effects of climatic variation on human demographics, and on the theory of human behavioural evolution. My journal publications (e.g. 10 in J. Hum. Evol)  have been cited 1822 times (Scopus: H-Index 18) and my 4 Science publications 458 times (Impact factor 33.6). Over the past 8 years I have led our research in the field and authored more than 30 peer reviewed papers (>500 citations), including 2 in Science, and published two books. A key strength of these publications is the input of more than thirty cross-disciplinary researchers, a factor I believe essential in addressing the complexities that are integral to original research articles on early human behavioural evolution.

During my scientific career I have concentrated on finding sites that were occupied by H. sapiens both during the Later Stone Age (LSA -c. 40 – 2 ka) and the Middle Stone Age (MSA - c. 160 – 50 ka). The laboratory methods that I have developed over the past 8 years for examining and analysing recovered materials at macroscopic and microscopic level are state-of-the-art. The groundbreaking discoveries that we made have challenged accepted paradigms regarding the evolution of human behaviour in Africa. Highlights of my research include (published in Science in 2010 with Mourre and Villa) the discovery of c. 75 ka preheated and pressure flaked stone points from Blombos, a sophisticated technique that evolved in Africa 55 000 years before Europe. A second major find at Blombos was a 100 000 year old in situ complex toolkit associated with the production of a pigmented compound. Associated with the kit was the earliest known container, an abalone shell in which the ‘paint ‘was stored. This paper, published in Science in 2011, resulted in 794 press articles in 66 countries with a readership of 600m people (Newsclip Media Monitoring).

My discovery in the past four years of three new archaeological sites located in the southern Cape will add significantly to existing knowledge of early H. sapiens in southern Africa, especially in coastal environments. Preliminary highlights include a Howiesons Poort Industry site with among the earliest known engraved ostrich egg shells. A paper is in press.

A core focus of my projects is to encourage young researchers, especially women and the previously disadvantaged, in Africa and Europe to pursue the study of our ancient African past. My postgraduate students and post-doctoral researchers at Wits and Bergen University have been directly involved in field excavations, and most have developed independent careers with successful publication records. Regular invitations to deliver plenary addresses, to lead sessions at international conferences and to deliver papers to diverse groups worldwide have provided me with the opportunity to experience diverse research traditions. It has also allowed me to work with a network of exceptional scientists in my own and complimentary disciplines.

In sum, my work on early H. sapiens’ cognitive abilities has frequently challenged mainframe views. My research on the recognition of symbolic material culture among MSA people and their ability for complex technology, has enabled me to question the once dominant paradigm of a sudden European origin of human behavioural modernity. I believe that a central achievement and the focus of my many publications is recognising that the most ancient symbolic traditions in Africa date back at least 100 000 years. The widely recognised impact of my scientific activities has placed me among the world leaders in the field of modern human origins research.


International & National Contributions

  • In 1999 Henshilwood founded the African Heritage Research Institute in Cape Town, South Africa, under the patronage of Dr. Nelson Mandela, to promote archaeological research on the origins of H. sapiens in southern Africa. In 2001 he was honoured at the opening of the South African parliament by President Thabo Mbeki for his research in African archaeology.  In 2008 he was awarded a 15-year South African Research Chair in the Origins of Modern Human Behaviour at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa, funded by the Department of Science and Technology and administered by the National Research Foundation. He was accepted as a member of the South African Academy of Science in 2009.
  • From 1999 – 2007 he was a research member of the Origin of Man, Language and Languages CNRS-ESF programme, based in Bordeaux, France. As a result of his contribution to French culture in general, and his work within this programme, he was awarded the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Palmes Académiques by the French Prime Minister in 2003
  • Central to the success of my research programmes is the ability to recruit and manage interdisciplinary laboratory and field research teams and this is reflected in the success of the international and national projects that I have lead over the past 8 years including a NRF/DST chair at Wits (15 years), a Norwegian Research Council grant (3 years - ZAR 3m) and a European Research Council Advanced FP7 Grant (5 years ZAR 35 m) (  In 2013 I was invited and admitted as a member of the prestigious Academy of Europe, Academia Europaea ( and in 2009 the Academy of Science (SA).

Review and Dissemination (Published Papers)

I regularly referee manuscripts submitted to peer reviewed journals such as Science, Nature, Antiquity, Current Anthropology, Journal of Human Evolution, Journal of Archaeological Science and the Journal of African Archaeology. I am also a reviewer for funding applications for the European Science Foundation, European Research Council, the National Science Foundation, the Leakey Foundation, The Wenner-Gren Foundation and National Geographic Society.

My research has been widely disseminated in television, film and the popular press, including television productions on BBC, National Geographic, Japanese, Scandinavian and other European channels, a feature film on Blombos Cave in 2008 produced by the American Museum of Natural History for their Hall of Ancestors permanent display, at least three hundred articles in international newspapers including front page articles in the Times and, New York Times, and numerous articles in popular journals including Scientific American, National Geographic and Time. In 2009 the Smithsonian Museum, Washington, invited him to contribute material culture recovered from Blombos Cave for their permanent exhibition. He has been invited to give plenary or opening lectures at numerous international conferences, press conferences, on international live television and radio broadcasts and has delivered many invited papers to specialised and general audiences in Europe, the USA, Canada, Africa and Asia.

Recent Outreach programmes (selected)


CNN’s Inside Africa documentary on Blombos Cave:

Clearwater Documentary involving Blombos Cave:

Popular Press

Article on Blombos Cave in Oceanography.

Blombos Cave – a capsule in time – Africa Geographic June 2013 article by Cheryl Lyn Dybas

National Geographic Photographer visits Blombos Cave (December) and Klipdrift Complex (February) for article in 2014


Aims of Research: Tracing the Origins of Behaviourally Modern Homo sapiens in southern Africa

1. Annual excavations of the c. 75 ka Still Bay and c. 100 ka archaeological levels at Blombos Cave, southern Cape.

2. New excavations at two Middle Stone Age archaeological sites located in the De Hoop Nature Reserve, Western Cape, Klipdrift Shelter and Klipdrift Cave Lower. The excavation of a further Terminal Pleistocene site, Klipdrift Cave, formed a part of this research.

3. Dating these archaeological deposits using OSL, U-series and TL dating methods

4. Reconstructing the climate and environment during the Middle Stone Age (c. 100 – 60 ka) occupations in the southern Cape

5. The development of innovative methods for the field and laboratory analysis of recovered materials in collaboration with a multidisciplinary team of regional and foreign experts.

6. Developing and publishing innovative theoretical models for the early evolution of human behaviours

Ancillary aims

1. That these projects were expected to provide excellent training in excavation techniques, artefact analysis, dating methods and palaeoenvironmental reconstruction for the more than 25 South African and foreign students that I have supervised at Masters, Ph. D and post-doc level. The recruitment of women and previously disadvantaged persons was a priority and achieved a good rate of success.

2. Rated scientists from South Africa, France, USA, Norway, UK and Australia contributed their expertise to the programme and assisted with graduate teaching.

In the sections below I report on the results of the various phases of the research described above. The projects that I lead are multi-disciplinary and involve more than 30 scientists either as co-researchers or students at the Universities of Wits, Bergen and Bordeaux.


1. Annual Excavations at Blombos Cave

Blombos Cave contains deposits dating to the Still Bay (c. 75 – 72 ka) and earlier time periods (> 100 ka). Artefacts typically associated with ‘modern’ humans from the Still Bay levels at Blombos include bone tools, marine shell beads and engraved ochre. Blombos has a prominent place in how the Middle Stone Age is viewed, and how behavioural evolution over the past 150 ka is interpreted. During 2006 – 2013 excavations at Blombos were carried out in the 100 – 75 ka levels. Results stemming from the analyses of artefacts were published or are in press in numerous papers in peer reviewed journals and chapters in monographs and books.

Highlights of the published discoveries include early evidence for controlled heating of stone prior to applying pressure flaking when manufacturing stone points at Blombos Cave 75 000 years ago. This is the earliest known use of this technique. (Mourre, V., Villa, P. & Henshilwood, C. 2010. Early Use of Pressure Flaking on Lithic Artifacts at Blombos Cave, South Africa. Science, 330: 659-662). The discovery of the earliest evidence for the assembling of a complex toolkit to produce a pigmented substance in a container at 100 000 years ago at Blombos Cave was published in Science in 2011 (Henshilwood et al A 100,000 Year Old Ochre Processing Workshop at Blombos Cave, South Africa. Science 334, 219-221). The latter paper resulted in coverage by 794 newspapers, among other media, across the globe.

The tradition of using ochre as a medium for engraving has now been shown to be much older than previously thought as seen from the study of ochre from BBC in the 100k levels (Henshilwood, et al 2009. Engraved ochres from the Middle Stone Age levels at Blombos Cave, South Africa. Journal of Human Evolution 57, 27-47.)

2. Excavation programme at Klipdrift Complex,

In 2010 I started excavations at a Later Stone Age site Klipdrift Cave (KDC) that is located in the Klipdrift Complex. These excavations were terminated in 2012. The recovered material is being analysed and forms a core of the PhD research of my Wits student, Kokeli Ryano. This Late Pleistocene site is likely to produce key insights into H. sapiens living in the southern Cape from 14 – 10 ka.

In 2011 I discovered a new site, Klipdrift Shelter (KDS), that is OSL dated at c. 65 – 60 ka). The limited excavations to date have produced significant finds including Howiesons Poort type backed lithic segments, >100 pieces of engraved ostrich egg shell (only the second known Howiesons Poort site containing these artefacts), ochre processing toolkits, and an anthropogenically modified human tooth. Excavations are continuing. Preliminary results for KDS have been submitted to the Journal of Archaeological Science.

An additional site, Klipdrift Cave Lower (KDCL - c. 90 ka), was identified in the Klipdrift Complex and I commenced with the initial excavation of the MSA levels in 2012. The overlying c. 2.5 m thick rock fall, OSL dated at 75 ka, was removed in February 2013 and we are continuing with exploratory excavations of these potentially rich deposits.

3. Dating archaeological deposits using OSL and TL dating methods

Blombos & De Hoop sites

The Blombos MSA deposits were dated using the OSL method (Dr. Z. Jacobs - Australia). The resulting paper in Journal of Archaeological Science helped clarify the position of the Still Bay in the MSA sequence in southern Africa. Dr. Chantal Tribolo (Univ. Bordeaux) is currently dating lithics recovered in-situ from hearths at Blombos and the Klipdrift sites using the thermoluminescence method. The lower Blombos deposits that contained the ochre toolkit published in Science was dated using the OSL and the uranium-series methods (the latter in association with Prof. S-E. Lauritzen - Norway). Since 2010 Dr Simon Armitage, Royal Holloway University, has been carrying out OSL dating of MSA deposits at Blombos and Klipdrift.

4. Climate Reconstruction in southern Africa for the Middle Stone Age

In the past 5 years our team applied a number of methods to reconstruct the climate, vegetation, and fire regime changes in southern Africa for the period 160 – 25 ka by combining the analysis of multiple proxies from marine and terrestrial archives with high resolution palaeoclimatic simulations. A number of the ideas and concepts for this research came from my paper published in 2008: Henshilwood, C.S. 2008. Winds of change: palaeoenvironments, material culture and human behaviour in the Late Pleistocene (c. 77 – 48 ka) in the Western Cape Province, South Africa. South African Archaeological Bulletin, 10: 35-51.

The methods applied in my team’s ongoing research into palaeoenviromental reconstruction include: 

1) Isotope analysis and U/Th dating of six speleothems recovered from deep caves within the De Hoop Nature Reserve. The results will provide high resolution proxies for the climatic conditions pertaining during the MSA in the southern Cape. This work was carried out by my PhD student at Wits, Jane Noah with assistance from Prof. S.E. Lauritzen, GeoSciences, University of Bergen. Her thesis and a publication are pending.

2) A study of micromammal associations to establish temperature variations for Blombos Cave and Klasies River during MIS 5e-4. This work was carried out by my PhD student at University of Bergen, Turid Hillestad Nel. She completed her PhD in 2012 and published her initial results. Nel, T. H. 2007. Middle Stone Age palaeoenvironments: a study of faunal material from Blombos Cave, southern Cape, South Africa. Nyame akuma  (68): 52-61.

3) A post doc in our project, Anne-Laure Daniau carried out microcharcoal analysis to reconstruct past fire regimes in southern Africa. This research was an integral part of the project on early Homo sapiens and was published in March 2013. Daniau et al. 2013. Orbital-scale climate forcing of grassland burning in southern Africa. PNAS doi: 10.1073/pnas.1214292110

5. The development of innovative methods for field and laboratory analysis

i) Over the past eight years I have focussed on applying and developing innovative methods for the recovery and analysis of early symbolic and complex material culture associated with H. sapiens. Onsite recording techniques that I have instituted include detailed laser assisted plotting of artefacts, features and layers with a Trimble Total Station; ii) We are applying the Uranium/Thorium (U/Th) dating method to a stalagmite recovered in situ within the deposits to determine the age of the MSA deposits at KDS; iii) Analysis of archaeological artefacts and residues with a variety of analytical techniques (optical and SEM microscopy, XRF, XRD, Raman, colorimetry, FTIR, PIXE-PIGE, Gas Chromatography-Mass Spectrometry). Using some of these techniques contributed to our understanding of the complexity of the contents of the ochre processing toolkits from the 100ka layers at Blombos Cave. iv) The application of optical and SEM microscopy, and EDS and Raman spectroscopy to experimentally heated and worn replicas of the Nassarius kraussianus shell beads found in the MSA Layers of Blombos Cave has allowed us to reconstruct the stringing methods used at 75 ka at this site and establish that the change in colour of some beads is due to heating. A paper on the results have been published, and another is in press. These analytical projects have provided excellent training in excavation techniques and artefact analysis for my more than 25 South African and foreign students that I have supervised at Masters, Ph. D and post-doc level.

The above research that was initiated in the past 8 years is ongoing.

6. Working on developing innovative theoretical models. 

Over the past eight years I have continued to discuss and develop new theoretical models with colleagues. Some of the papers that we have jointly published are Henshilwood, C. S. & Dubreuil, B. 2011. The Still Bay and Howiesons Poort, 77 - 59 ka: Perspective-taking and the evolution of the modern human mind during the African Middle Stone Age. Current Anthropology. 52 (3): 361-40 and Dubreuil, B. & Henshilwood, C.S. 2013. Archeology and the language-ready brain. Language & Cognition 5 (2-3): 251 -26

Review of my publications and dissemination of results in past 8 years

i) Journal publications: Science (2), Journal of Human Evolution (5): Journal of Archaeological Science (3): Current Anthropology (2); ii) Other peer reviewed journals or book chapters (21): iii) Peer reviewed in press or prep (9); iv) Edited Books (2); v) Plenary lectures or Invited Presentations (14 – since 2008); vi) Conferences presentations (22 – since 2008); vii) Unsolicited Review articles on my research – Science (4), Nature (3); viii) Documentaries (6), Television/ Newspaper/ Magazine articles (> 2000); ix) Website established  (15 000 hits over 12 months)

Ongoing and Planned Future Research 2014-2020

Ongoing and planned future research

The research that I will lead for the next 6 years is in two parts. First, continuing and new excavations at Late Pleistocene (Middle and Later Stone Age) archaeological sites located in the southern Cape, South Africa. The precision excavation techniques that I have developed, and the application of innovative analytical methods with new theoretical approaches will, with the assistance of a inter- disciplinary team that I have recruited continue to change and refine the interpretations of the earliest instances of complex human behaviour. Second, I will lead a multi-disciplinary project focused on reconstructing the palaeoenvironment in the southern Cape based on the material recovered from aforementioned excavations.

Part 1: Continuing and new excavations of Late Pleistocene archaeological sites in the southern Cape, South Africa

Blombos Cave (BBC) is located on the southern coast of South Africa, approximately 300 km east of Cape Town. Among the innovations that have emanated from the Blombos excavations are the first known production of a multi-component pigmented compound at 100 ka, the earliest use of a container, in this case an abalone shell, also at 100 ka, use of personal ornaments, consisting of perforated marine shells at 75 ka, the deliberate heating of lithic raw materials to enhance knapping and the first known application at 75 ka of pressure flaking on preheated lithic materials.

Klipdrift Shelter (KDS), Klipdrift Cave (KDC) and Klipdrift Cave Lower (KDCL) form a complex in a steep quartzite cliff approximately 10m from the Indian Ocean in De Hoop Nature reserve, southern Cape. The complex was discovered by the PI and team during surveys. The complex lies 45 km west of BBC. Excavations commenced in 2010. KDS contains material culture from the Howiesons Poort techno-tradition (c. 65 ka – 60 ka). Significant finds include backed lithic segments, engraved ostrich egg shell, ochre processing toolkits, a modified human tooth and plant remains (Henshilwood, C.S., van Niekerk, K.L., Wurz, S., Delagnes, A., Armitage, S., Rifkin, R., Douze, K., Keene, P., Haaland, M., & Reynard, J., (in press) Klipdrift Shelter, southern Cape, South Africa: Preliminary report on the c. 65 - 60 ka Howiesons Poort levels. Journal of Archaeological Science). KDCL (c. 90ka) contains cultural material including well preserved bone and in situ hearths. Shellfish is not present, suggesting that occupation occurred at a time of lowered sea levels. KDC is a Later Stone Age site that was occupied in the terminal Pleistocene (14 ka – 10 ka). This was a time of rapid climatic change in the southern Cape after the height of the Last Glacial with rapidly rising sea levels and the extinction of megafauna. Marine and terrestrial fauna and plant materials are well preserved.

These sites have long term potential for the recovery of materials that will inform on early coastal subsistence patterns and on the early symbolic and complex material culture associated with these H. sapiens.

Part 2: Southern Cape Palaeoenvironmental Reconstruction Programme

With a multi-disciplinary philosophy and an emphasis on the participation of women and historically disadvantaged researchers I will lead a new programme, named ArchClimSA,  that will integrate a variety of disciplines and expertise, including archaeologists, archaeobotanists, zooarchaeologists and palaeoclimatologists from South Africa, Norway and the UK to address key issues relating to climate change and human evolution in southern Africa. The team for this research has been assembled over the past year. The key focus will be on reconstructing the climate and palaeoenvironments during the Late and terminal Pleistocene in the southern Cape using, as proxies, materials recovered from archaeological sites that were occupied by early H. sapiens. The age range of the project’s research, c. 100 ka-10 ka, falls within the vital period in prehistory when modern human cognition was evolving. Building on existing and new data the project  will examine if the behavioural innovations that emerged in the southern Cape after 100 ka can be linked to changing climate and environments.

Research methodologies:

i. Oxygen Isotope Analysis: Using laser ablation, samples of CaCO3 will be sampled in shells from layers in the above sites with modern controls. The results will inform on seasonality and long term changes in sea surface temperature.

ii. Microfauna: Multivariate analysis of data from mammalian microfaunal remains from Blombos and Klasies River

iii. Shellfish and Fish: Study will examine species, changes in species and abundance to determine if they reflect changes in SSTs and environments related to sea level regressions and progressions.

iv. Macrofauna: Analysis of macrofauna from the above sites to document: the distribution of extant and extinct species; the dispersal and disappearance of species; model past environments and the role of humans in palaeoecology.

v. Plants and Palaeoenvironments: Compile a local knowledge of plant uses in the region that will enhance the identifications and interpretations of archaeological flora. Results will help reconstruct past climates and environments and provide a perspective on human engagement with vegetation in the past.