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Digging the past

The new Centre of Excellence at The University of Bergen aims to discover the past to understand the present.

henshilwood og sff.jpg

SapienCE
The SapienCE-team at the opening seminar for the new SFF Centre.
Photo:
Ole Marius Kvamme

In March 2017, the University of Bergen got a new Centre of Excellence (SFF). Centre for Early Sapiens Behaviour (SapienCE) brings together researchers from a broad range of fields, including archaeologists, zoo-archaeologists, micromorphologists, palaeoclimatologists, climate dynamicists, dating experts, social scientists, cognitive and neuroscientists as well as geneticists, to say something fundamental about what it means to be human.

“In the coming years we will make great progress in understanding our common past”, says UiB- professor Christopher Henshilwood”, the director of SapienCE.

Three sites

Three archeological sites will be excavated at the new SFF-centre; Blombos Cave, Klipdrift Shelter and Klasies River. They all lie close to Cape Town, at the southern point of Africa. At these sites, traces of settlements can be found, dating back 100 000 years. According to Henshilwood, fundamental changes occurred in the human brain in this period, with archeological findings changing perceptions of the behavioural variability and adaptive strategies of early humans. Combined, the three excavation sites stretches from 50 000 years to 100 000 years ago.

Major findings

Henshilwood conducted the first excavation at Blombos Cave in 1991, as part of his PhD-thesis from the University Of Cambridge. Since then, multiple excavations, led by Henshilwood, in the area have found, among other things, the earliest evidence for the making of a pigmented compound and the use of containers (100 000 years old) and the first known use of pressure flaking to create finely crafted stone tools (75 000 years old).

Major findings also include items of symbolic material, like the earliest geometric engravings on ochre (100-75 000 years old), personal ornaments made from marine shell (75 000 years old), and among the earliest engraved ostrich eggshell (66 000 years old). Henshilwood concludes these artifacts can be linked directly to cognitive advances of the early humans.

Evolution

“We want to investigate different steps in the evolution of the brain, to find out what changed when Homo sapiens were able to communicate more meaningful and strategical”, Henshilwood says.

Other major aims will be to understand how the climate changed, and what the consequences were, as well as to determine the genetic relationship of early Homo sapiens to the human population of today. The research at SapienCE seek to, over the next decade, consolidate Norway’s position as a world leader in early human origins research.

“These are highly complex questions. To understand these processes, our centre will greatly benefit from the variety of the researchers and collaborative partners involved”, Henshilwood says.

Enthusiasm

There is a lot of enthusiasm about the new centre at UiB, and Henshilwood is glad for the support from the rector, The University Board, the deans, as well as from the Norwegian Research Council, who awarded the SFF status.

June 20, the members of SapienCE attended a seminar, presenting ideas and discussing the way forward. The new SFF-centre officially opens in October 2017, and the first joint fieldwork to the excavation sites is scheduled for February 2018.

Ambitions

“Looking ten years into the future, what do you hope to accomplish with SapienCE?”

“We will have a lot of progress, important discoveries and publications. We will also uncover many new questions. In fact, I am convinced we will have just as many questions as we have today. But they will be other questions, laying the foundations for further research on these topics”.

“In ten years we will know a lot more about our common ancestors. We will know more about the way they lived and how their brains developed. We will have found new knowledge about how and why modern human behaviour came to be, and evolved, in South Africa”, Henshilwood says.