UiB archaeologist among world's most cited researchers

Professor Christopher Henshilwood is already a holder of an advanced grant from the European Research Council. Now he has also been named as one of the most cited researchers in the world.

Professor Christopher Henshilwood of the University of Bergen (UiB) and leader of the TRACSYMBOLS research project photographed in Blombos Cave on South Africa’s Southern Cape coastline.
AN ARCHAEOLOGIST AT WORK: Professor Christopher Henshilwood of the University of Bergen (UiB) photographed in Blombos Cave on South Africa’s Southern Cape coastline. Photo: TRACSYMBOLS

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According to the Highly Cited Researchers 2014 ranking, collected by the media and publishing company Thomson Reuters, Professor Christopher Henshilwood of UiB’s Department of Archaeology, History, Cultural Studies and Religion is among the world’s top one per cent of most cited researchers in the social sciences and the humanities.

The numbers have been collected by reviewing the most quoted publications via Thomson Reuters’ Web of Science, an online scientific citation indexing service, for the time period 2002-2011. 21 disciplines were reviewed as part of the citation ranking that put Henshilwood in the world’s top one per cent cited researchers in his field.

A team victory

The archaeology professor himself shares the credit for the high ranking with his research team and the scene for his main discoveries, Blombos Cave, about 300 kilometres east of Cape Town, South Africa.

“Thanks to our archaeological sites in South Africa that represent the living places of our earliest common ancestors, Homo sapiens, and all their treasures, I have had many findings to write about,” says Christopher Henshilwood. “These include my publications on the origins of language and symbolism; the effects of climatic variation on human demographics; and the epistemology of the early behavioural evolution of Homo sapiens. My multidisciplinary team has been totally invaluable in regards to putting the findings into context. This is a team victory!”

The South African archaeologist discovered Blombos Cave in 1991, but it was only in February 2002, after more substantial financing had made thorough excavations possible, that he was able to get his most quoted article published in the journal Science.

New view of modern humanity

In this article, Emergence of modern human behaviour: Middle Stone Age engravings from South Africa, Henshilwood presented evidence that the age of ‘modern human behaviour’ started in Africa before 75,000 years ago; not 40,000 years ago in Europe, as previous research had suggested. This article alone has been cited by 291 researchers, a very high figure in the fields of the social sciences and the humanities. The number of times his papers have been cited overall exceed 2,000 according to Scopus, a bibliographic database containing abstracts and citations for academic journal articles, and Thomson Reuters’ Web of Science; and more than 4,000 according to Harzing's Publish or Perish and Google Scholar.

“Our first article in Science changed the way we look at the way modern human behaviour evolved. Many leading people within the field were sceptical. However, most changed their opinion when two years later we published further evidence for the origin of the modern human behaviour being in Africa. Over a period of 5,000 years and more than 70,000 years ago, the cave's inhabitants continued to use the same tiny marine ‘tick’ shells to make necklaces,” says Henshilwood, who is also a recipient of an Advanced Grant from the European Research Council (ERC) and heads the TRACSYMBOLS research project, which you can read more about in this article.

Looking for future citations

He is confident that another article, A 100,000-year old Ochre-Processing Workshop at Blombos Cave, South Africa, published in October 2011 in Science, will be among the most cited when Thomson Reuters conduct their next academic citation indexing about ten years from now.

In the article, Henshilwood presents the discovery of two abalone shells and a complete processing toolkit including ochre, bone and grinders. The shells contained a red paint that may have been used as a cosmetic, or to paint artefacts or bodies. A small bone brush with paint on the one end was found perched on the edge of one container. These are the oldest known containers in the world.

“The paint processing toolkit really shows that humans were behaviourally modern even further back in time than previously thought and also provides evidence that our early ancestors had a knowledge of elementary chemistry,” says the archaeology professor. “This was groundbreaking research, and with time I think the 2011 article will pass the 2002 article in regards to the number of citations.”

What does it take to be published in a journal such as Science?

Science rejects 93 per cent of the articles received. The research accepted by the journal does not only have to be ‘hard’ science; in addition it has to be groundbreaking and should reveal novel concepts of broad importance to the scientific community,” explains Henshilwood.

Articles always accepted by Science

Fortunately, he has never had the experience of having one of his articles rejected by the prestigious journal; all four articles he has submitted have been published.

The ERC funding for Henshilwood’s TRACSYMBOLS project has also enabled further excavations, both at Blombos Cave and at a newly found 65,000 years old site, Klipdrift Shelter. Both sites are located in the Southern Cape, South Africa. The ever more spectacular discoveries in the years 2002-2012 have, so far, provided Henshilwood and his team with close to 50 peer-reviewed articles and two books. Henshilwood suggests that the number of publications could have been even higher.

“The interpretation of our findings in the ancient caves of South Africa, give us a lot more stories than we are able to tell. There are so many stories that deserve to be told, but there is just not enough time,” he quips.

More citation-worthy material

Why do you think so many other researchers quote your articles?

“I view this as a compliment to the groundbreaking and novel research that my multidisciplinary team and I have done over the past two decades. The compliment will be of great help in getting continued funding, and give us the opportunity to carry out further excavations at existing and new archaeological sites and publish even more research that hopefully, in time, will be highly cited,” says Christopher Henshilwood.

The wait for more citation-worthy material will probably not take long. At present, Henshilwood and his team have excavations at new sites planned for 2015 and no less than eight articles in the pipeline; one of which presents the finding of a 65,000-year old children’s tooth, which so closely resembles a modern child’s tooth that it confirms that a focal point of early human prehistory lies in the very south of Africa.

Christopher Henshilwood also holds a professorship at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa.

(Translated from the Norwegian by Sverre Ole Drønen.)