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 and co-PI 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. This approach is creating new benchmarks for better understanding the behavioural evolution of these hominins within precise environmental and ecological frameworks.


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.


The use of symbolic material culture by Neanderthals before the first arrival of H. sapiens in Europe at c. 40 ka challenges the idea that symbolically mediated behaviour is unique to our species. It is unclear, as is the case for H. sapiens, whether the apparent discontinuity in the use of symbolic material culture by Neanderthals was affected by climatic variability.

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.