The aim of TRACSYMBOLS is to examine how key behavioural innovations emerged among Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis in southern Africa and Europe respectively, and explore whether and how environmental variability influenced this development between 180 – 25 ka [Marine Isotope Stages (MIS) 6 – 3].

To achieve this goal the PI, Prof. Christopher Henshilwood (University of Bergen, Norway & University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa) and co-PI, Prof. Francesco d’Errico (University of Bordeaux, France) have built up a new research team that for the first time are combining archaeological results, original multi-proxy palaeoenvironmental data, and state-of-the-art climatic simulations for two continents to which a dedicated biocomputational algorithm is being applied.

In TRACSYMBOLS we are applying new methodology and field research to test the hypothesis that key cultural developments and discontinuities associated with early H. sapiens and Neanderthals may be related to climatic variability. To achieve this goal we are:

  • Conducting new archaeological excavations at an MSA site, Klipdrift Shelter, located in De Hoop Nature Reserve, southern Cape. This is an area associated with the earliest development of H. sapiens behaviour. We are also continuing excavations in the promising 75 ka & 100 ka MSA levels at Blombos Cave, South Africa.
  • Applying innovative methods to the analysis of early symbolic and complex material culture of H. sapiens and Neanderthals, including abstract engravings, pigments, personal ornaments and stylised bone tools.
  • Reconstructing climate, vegetation, and fire regime changes in Europe and southern Africa for the target periods by combining the analysis of multiple proxies from marine and terrestrial archives with high resolution palaeoclimatic simulations.
  • Incorporating archaeological and palaeoclimatic data into a novel bio-computational architecture (Genetic Algorithm for Rule Set Prediction: GARP) that allows for the reconstruction, quantification and comparison of the ecological niches exploited by human populations within each climatic phase.
A short presentation of the TRACSYMBOLS project and the Blombos Cave.
Video by Science Bulletin, American Museum of Natural History
Figure: Panoramic view of interior of Blombos Cave (Photo: Magnus Haaland). Figure: Blombos coastline (Photo: Magnus Haaland).
Figure: View of Klipdrift Cave (left) and Klipdrift Shelter (Photo: Magnus Haaland). Material culture from the c. 75 – 72 ka Still Bay levels at Blombos Cave, South Africa African beads rewrite the human story?.
Video by CNN’s Inside Africa