Between 125,000 and 70,000 years ago, people began to do some very modern things: collecting small objects for no practical reason, decorating things with pigments, and storing water and possibly even food in containers. The oldest known sites with evidence of those behaviors are along the coastline of southern Africa. Today, most of those important sites are right on the coast, but even during the Pleistocene, when sea levels were lower, they would have been close enough for the people who lived there to make use of marine resources.
And according to one idea in paleoanthropology, something about that way of life enabled those early people—or maybe pushed them—to innovate. Their distant neighbors who lived far from the sea supposedly lagged behind the cultural times. But Griffith University archaeologist Jayne Wilkins and her colleagues recently unearthed evidence that landlocked people were just as hip and modern as their counterparts on the coast.
Score one for flyover country
At Ga-Mohana Hill North Rockshelter, there’s a layer of sediment dating back to 105,000 years ago and scattered with stone tools. In it, Wilkins and her colleagues found a large chunk of red ocher, worn flat and striated on two sides, as if it had been used as pigment. The rock shelter also held a cache of translucent white calcite crystals, which hadn’t been worked or used as tools; it looked as if someone had gathered up the crystals simply for the sake of having them, or maybe as a ritual offering. Several broken, burned pieces of ostrich eggshell, buried in the same layer, may once have held stores of water.
The Ga-Mohana Hill artifacts are roughly the same age as the oldest similar finds on the coast, according to optically stimulated luminescence dating, which measures when quartz grains in the sediment were last exposed to light—in this case, about 105,000 years ago. That’s around the same time that people along the coast of southern Africa started collecting seashells for no apparent practical purpose, while people at Diepkloof Rockshelter in South Africa stored their water in the oldest known ostrich eggshell containers.
It sounds like an almost laughably simple idea to a 21st century human: if you put some stuff inside a larger thing, you can carry it more easily and store it for later. But we’ve had the benefit of at least 200,000 years of figuring out how to do things. At one point in our distant prehistory, containers were an amazing new idea. It would have been, as Wilkins and her colleagues put it, “a crucial innovation for early humans.”
The conclusion from these finds is that people in the African interior weren’t lagging behind coastal cultures at all. Some of the most important innovations in human prehistory happened in multiple areas of the continent at around the same time.
Testing the coastal hypothesis
If you’re not an archaeologist, it may seem obvious that people living inland could be just as innovative as people living on the coast, but all the evidence archaeologists had until now told a different story. The oldest traces of a whole suite of new (at the time) human behaviors have all been found at sites relatively close to the coastline. In the African interior, in places like the Kalahari basin, we’ve found evidence that people were present around 100,000 years ago, but there was no indication that they stored their water in eggshells, colored things with pigment, or collected shiny objects.
But according to Wilkins and her colleagues, that has more to do with geology than with what people were actually doing in the distant past. “Stratified Late Pleistocene sites with good preservation and robust chronologies are rare in the interior of southern Africa,” they wrote in their recent paper. The result is what they describe as a “strong bias towards coastal sites that marginalizes the role of inland populations,” which, in their words, “[has] always been problematic.”
The artifacts from Ga-Mohana Hill North Rockshelter are the first evidence that people living far from the coasts invented some key cultural concepts at around the same time as people on the coasts. And that tells us something important about our past: lots of people, in lots of different environments, found similar solutions to problems and similar things to care about.