East African artifacts support evolution of symbolic thinking in Middle Stone Age

Anthropology at Arizona State University , K. Stewart from the Canadian Museum of Nature and C.F. Vondra from the Department of Geological and Atmospheric Sciences at Iowa State University.

"Some of the artifacts, in particular the ostrich egg shell beads are rare or unprecedented in the Middle Stone Age," said Marean. "Beads were not previously believed to be present in the Middle Stone Age and nothing like this has been published in Africa."

Until relatively recently, it was generally believed that human "behavioral modernity" -- the ability to think abstractly and to create culture and art developed in humans significantly after Homo sapiens evolved to its present physical form (circa 120,000 years before present) and first in Eurasia, where human art and sophisticated artifacts begin appearing about 35,000 years ago. Recent evidence, including important discoveries of sophisticated bone tools from Blombos Cave in South Africa dated at more than 70,000 years old, have weakened this argument, showing that human tool technologies were significantly advanced before humans left Africa. The decorations on two ochre pieces from Blombos Cave have been interpreted as signs of symbolic activity, but that interpretation is debated.

The researchers see the beads as significant indicators of human cultural modernity because beads are clearly decorative, and decoration strongly implies abstract and symbolic thinking. "These beads are particularly significant because the symbolic nature of the Blombos bone tools and decorated ochre has been debated. The beads are unambiguous examples of symbolic behavior," Marean said.

Ostrich egg shell beads may also be indicators of even broader cultural developments. While there is no evidence of how the beads were used, ethnographic studies of recent African hunter-gatherer societies show that modern beads of this type are often used in trade between groups.

The methods that are used to produce

Contact: James Hathaway
Arizona State University

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