Homo symbolicus: The dawn of language, imagination and spirituality. Amsterdam: Benjamins 

Book edited by Christopher Henshilwood & Francesco d’Errico

The emergence of symbolic culture, classically identified with the European cave paintings of the Ice Age, is now seen, in the light of recent groundbreaking discoveries, as a complex nonlinear process taking root in a remote past and in different regions of the planet. In this book the archaeologists responsible for some of these new discoveries, flanked by ethologists interested in primate cognition and cultural transmission, evolutionary psychologists modelling the emergence of metarepresentations, as well as biologists, philosophers, neuro-scientists and an astronomer combine their research findings. Their results call into question our very conception of human nature and animal behaviour, and they create epistemological bridges between disciplines that build the foundations for a novel vision of our lineage’s cultural trajectory and the processes that have led to the emergence of human societies as we know them.

Learn more about Homo Symbolicus on the publisher’s website.



Early Use of Pressure Flaking on Lithic Artifacts at Blombos Cave, South Africa

Early Use of Pressure Flaking on Lithic Artifacts at Blombos Cave, South Africa

Mourre, V., Villa, P. & Henshilwood, C. 2010. Early Use of Pressure Flaking on Lithic Artifacts at Blombos Cave, South Africa. Science, 330: 659-662.

A group of prehistoric people mastered a difficult and delicate process to sharpen stones into spears and knives at least 75,000 years ago, more than 50,000 years earlier than previously thought, according to a report.

This technique, known as pressure flaking, allowed for the more precise shaping of stones to turn them into better weapons for hunting, a paper published on Thursday in the U.S. periodical Science said.

"These points are very thin, sharp and narrow and possibly penetrated the bodies of animals better than that of other tools," said Paola Villa, a curator at the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History and a study co-author.

The new findings show pressure flaking took place at Blombos Cave in what is now South Africa during the Middle Stone Age by anatomically modern humans and involved the heating of silcrete -- quartz grains cemented by silica -- used to make tools, the university said in a news release.

Pressure flaking is a process by which implements previously shaped by hard stone hammer strikes followed by softer strikes with wood or bone hammers are carefully trimmed on the edges by directly pressing the point of a tool made of bone on the stone, it said.

"Using the pressure flaking technique required strong hands and allowed toolmakers to exert a high degree of control on the final shape and thinness that cannot be achieved by percussion," Villa said.

Prior to the Blombos Cave discovery, the earliest evidence of pressure flaking was from the Upper Paleolithic Solutrean culture in France and Spain roughly 20,000 years ago.

The authors speculated the pressure flaking technique may have been invented in Africa and used sporadically before its later, widespread adoption in Europe, Australia and North America.

The co-authors included Vincent Mourre of the French National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research and Christopher Henshilwood of the University of Bergen in Norway and director of the Blombos Cave excavation.

"This flexible approach to technology may have conferred an advantage to the groups of Homo sapiens who migrated out of Africa about 60,000 years ago," the authors wrote in Science. (Reuters)



The Still Bay and Howiesons Poort, 77 - 59 ka: Symbolic material culture and the evolution of the mind during the African Middle Stone Age

The Still Bay and Howiesons Poort, 77 - 59 ka: Symbolic material culture and the evolution of the mind during the African Middle Stone Age

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): 361-400.

The evolution of anatomically modern Homo sapiens in Africa is followed by a period of rapid behavioural change that is observable in the archaeological record. From about 80 000 years ago, or perhaps before, our ancestors began to use personal ornaments, engrave abstract designs, and manufacture increasingly standardized tools. The significance of these innovations, their connection with biological evolution, and their implication for the evolution of the mind have been the object of passionate debates among archaeologists and cognitive scientists for a long time. At the centre of the discussion are two Middle Stone Age periods in southern Africa – the Still Bay and the Howiesons Poort, dated between about 77,000 and 59,000 years ago – that have yielded particularly rich and complete evidence of our ancestors’ inventiveness. The paper by Henshilwood and Dubreuil discusses the different theories about the evolution of the mind that have been proposed to account for these innovative ideas and practices. It draws on data from brain evolution and comparative neuroscience to argue that a change in the organisation of early Homo sapiens brains allowed them to better read each others’ intentions, beliefs, and desires. A vital outcome was that it produced a spate of changes in material culture and social organisation.


A 100,000-Year-Old Ochre-Processing Workshop at Blombos Cave, South Africa

From Science (Vol. 334 No. 6053), 2011:

The conceptual ability to source, combine, and store substances that enhance technology or social practices represents a benchmark in the evolution of complex human cognition. Excavations in 2008 at Blombos Cave, South Africa, revealed a processing workshop where a liquefied ochre-rich mixture was produced and stored in two Haliotis midae (abalone) shells 100,000 years ago. Ochre, bone, charcoal, grindstones, and hammerstones form a composite part of this production toolkit. The application of the mixture is unknown, but possibilities include decoration and skin protection.

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