Before I go further, I should just say that I am very much a child of Africa, I spent many many blissful hours as a child along the seashores of Kenya and Tanzania and I still have treasured collections of the seashells I gathered there long ago.
Those reasons were enough to prompt me to read with attention an article from August's Scientific American
magazine which my husband waved under my nose. Entitled "When the Sea Saved Humanity
", it is an account by archaeologist Curtis W. Marean
of how his findings in a cave above the rocky coast near Mossel Bay, South Africa, have afforded insights into how the very small and endangered population of Homo sapiens
could have survived the dry, cold glacial age that rendered most of Africa uninhabitable from 195,000 to 123,000 years ago. South Africa's coastal bounty of shell fish and its very nutritious underground geophytes or tubers allowed this small group of people (from whom today's nearly seven billion inhabitants descend!) to survive.
Excavations from this cave, PP13B, at Pinnacle Point, have shown that man began living there 164,000 years ago. Evidence from the cave and others in the same area has pushed back to these very early dates proof of human cognition, technological abilities, tracking of time through lunar phases and sophisticated use of marine resources. But they have also shown another highly important sign of human "cognitive modernity", namely the evidence of art and its symbolic usage.
This is where, as an artist, I read with fascinated glee. Amongst the other artifacts found in the cafe at Pinnacle Point were countless pieces of red ocre, carved or ground to powder to mix with some binder, such as animal fat, to make paint for body or other surface adornment. By 110,000 years ago, red ocre and sea shells, collected and saved for their aesthetic appeal, made their appearance in the cave. These point to the existence of the concept of art and other symbolic activities. Another British archaeologist, Ian Watts
, has found worked and unworked pieces of red ocre by the thousands at other sites in South Africa, dating from 120,000 years ago. (Remember - the earliest European cave paintings that use red ocre on the cave walls date from 32,000 years ago.)
Curtis Marean also mentions the discovery, in Blombos Cave, to the west of Pinnacle Point, of pieces of ocre with systematic, abstract carving by Christopher S. Henshilwood
of the University of Bergen. Along with the ocre rocks, he found refined bone tools and beads, all dating from 75,000 years ago. The image of the abstractly-decorated rock is courtesy of Christopher Henshilwood and Francesco d'Enrico.
I read this Scientific American article and savoured of the fact that apparently, art, its appreciation and central role in symbolic and aesthetic development, were an extremely early characteristic of Homo sapiens. I liked the personal link, too, to Africa's coast and its bounty. But then the day's coincidences continued.
This afternoon, on the Science portion of NPR's "All things Considered", Alix Spiegel asked, "When did we all become Modern?"
. She too was honing in on the use of symbols and their role in the development of cognitive modernity. At the end of her piece, she also referred to Professor Henshliwood and his discoveries in South African caves. What she reported on in more detail was the fact that the archaeologist found tiny shells in the cave; when he looked at them under a microscope, he found that each of them had had a tiny
hole drilled in the same place. These shell beads were created for adornment, for status and identity and artistry, some 75,000 years ago.
Meanwhile, as the NPR website showed, other Nassarius shells, found at the Grotte des Piegeons in Morocco back in 1908, were also drilled to become beads, and were stained with red
ocre. These beads date from 82,500 years ago, during the Moroccan Middle Paleolithic age.
Professors Francesco d'Enrico and Marian Vanhaeren published these illustrations of the beads in the Journal of Human Evolution.
All these amazingly early datings of evidence of art and its use in man's daily life give one an even deeper feeling of the centrality of art's role in our lives. We ignore this heritage at our peril.