Posts Tagged ‘Christopher Henshilwood’

How Our Early Ancestors Lived

August 17, 2018

This post is taken from “Origin Story: A Big History of Everything” by David Christian.” Like all large animals, our early ancestors collected or hunted resources and game from their surroundings. But there was a critical difference between those animals and early humans. Although other species hunted and gathered using a repertoire of skills and information that had barely changed over the generations, humans did so with an increasing understanding of their environments, as they shared and accumulated information about plants, animals, seasons and landscapes. Due to collective learning over the generations human communities hunted and gathered with growing skill and efficiency.

At Blombos Cave, on the Indian Ocean shores of South Africa, archaeologist Christopher Henshilwood and his colleagues have excavated sites dating from ninety thousand years ago. The inhabitants of Blombos Cave ate shellfish, fish, marine animals as well as land mammals and reptiles. They cooked in well-tended hearths. They made delicate stone blades and bone points were probably hafted to wooden handles with specially prepared glues. And they were also artists. Archaeologists found ocher stones with geometrical scratch marks on them that look like symbols or even writing. They also made different-colored pigments and ostrich-shell beads. Christian writes, “It is also tempting to see this evidence as a sign that the Blombos communities valued collective learning and the preservation and transmission of information, and that surely means that they preserved and told stories that summed up their community knowledge.

At the Lake Mungo site in Australia, there is compelling evidence for religion. A cremation and burial site from about forty thousand years ago and a scattering of other human remains are evidence of ritual traditions. Other evidence from the site reminds us that Paleolithic societies, like modern human societies, underwent profound upheavals, many were caused by unpredictable climate changes of the most recent ice age. There were regular periods of aridity from the moment humans first arrived in the Willandra Lakes Region, perhaps fifty thousand years ago. About forty thousand years ago, aridity increased and the lake system began to shrink.

Christian writes, “Twenty thousand years later, at the coldest phase of the ice age, there were communities living in tundra-like environments on the steppes of modern Ukraine. At sites like Mezhirich, people built huge marquee-like tents, using skins stretched over a scaffolding of mammoth bones, and warmed them with internal hearths. They hunted mammoths and other large animals and stored meat in refrigerated pits for recovery during the long cold winters. They hunted fur-bearing animals and used needle-like objects with ornamental heads carved from bone to sew warm clothing. As many as thirty people may have lived together at Mezhirich during the long ice-age winters. There are similar sites near Mezhirich. This suggests there were regular contacts between neighboring groups, the sort of networks through which information about new technologies, changing climates, animal movements, and other resources would have been changed, as well as stories.” People would also have moved between neighboring groups.

Christian continues, “The remains left behind the Paleolithic communities offer grainy snapshots of their societies. But each snapshot represents an entire cultural world, with stories, legends, heroes, and villains, scientific and geographical knowledge, and traditions and rituals that preserved and passed on ancient skills. This accumulation of ideas, traditions, and information was what allowed our Paleolithic ancestors to find the energy and resources they needed to survive and flourish and migrate farther and farther in a harsh, ice-aged world.”