Digging the past of South Africa

Symbols are such a common part of modern life that we don’t often think about how important they are. If we see a red traffic light, we stop the car. When and why did humans start communicating with each other using symbols like this? How did the adoption and use of symbols affect prehistoric societies?

Blombos Cave
DIGGING THE PAST: SapienCE archaeologists at work, investigating findings that can help build a deeper understanding of the lives of our ancestors.
Craig Foster

Main content

Homo sapiens has existed for at least 300 000 years, but there is no evidence indicating "modern" behaviour at that time. Instead, current archaeological evidence suggests that changes in human thought, behaviour and technology occurred more recently, between 120 000 and 50 000 years ago.

A deeper understanding

Much of the evidence for these changes comes from archaeological sites on the southern Cape coast of South Africa. For example, 100 000 years ago large shells were being used to mix powdered rock and other ingredients to produce vivid red paints. By 70 000 years ago, people were using the same red rock, this time in the form of a crayon, to make abstract drawings on stone. At the same time, our ancestors started to wear personal ornamentation, such as shell beads, and to produce intricate stone and bone tools. These represent profound changes in the ways in which our ancestors interacted with each other and their environment. Were these changes the result of changes in the human brain, or the need to adapt to rapidly changing environmental conditions? 

Ground-breaking insight

SapienCE archaeologists investigate these questions by building up an ever deeper understanding of the lives of our ancestors. Detailed analysis of bones, shells, tools and sediments tells us what our ancestors ate, how they hunted and what environment they lived in. Experimental archaeology allows us to understand the archaeology that we excavate. For example, was a hearth used once, suggesting that the cave was a campsite, or hundreds of times, suggesting that it was a home? By drawing together all of these lines of evidence, SapienCE is providing ground-breaking insight into the evolution of our species’ behaviour.