Global Science Festival Kerala

Blombos cave

As our time machine travels back in time around 100,000 years ago, tracing the human ancestors, all human populations from America, Europe, Asia, and Africa invariably have to reach the African continent. Humans were scattered around East, Middle, and South Africa during this period. Warm in the winter and cool in the summer, Blombos Cave would have been a welcome shelter for some of those early humans moving along what is now the southern Cape coast. We can see many of their artifacts, and next to them are the bones they chewed, the fires they made, and the sleeping areas they used at night.

Blombos Cave is situated in a steep cliff, 100 meters from the Indian Ocean and 34.5 meters above modern sea level. The sediments of the cave were well protected because its elevation sheltered it from erosion by the high sea level stands during Marine Isotope Stage 5e and Marine Isotope Stage 1. The Blombos Cave site preserves an extensive record of archaeological evidence from the Middle Stone Age (MSA) and Late Stone Age (LSA). Dating by optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) methods has provided human occupation dates suggesting MSA occupation beyond 70,000 years ago and up to 100,000 years ago.

Artifacts from the MSA phase at Blombos Cave include bifacial points, bone tools, marine shell beads, and engraved ochre. The cross-hatching done in ochre on a stone fragment found at Blombos Cave is believed to be the earliest known drawing done by a human in the world. Beads are widely regarded as symbolic artifacts, and the evidence from Blombos Cave suggests that their choice, transport, modification, colouring, and long-term wearing were all part of a deliberate, shared, and transmitted form of symbolic behaviour.

Blombos Cave also provides evidence of well-preserved terrestrial and marine faunal remains, indicating that the early humans who occupied the cave were skilled hunters and gatherers. The site has yielded a wealth of information about the lives of these early humans, including their subsistence strategies, technological innovations, and social and cultural practices.

The Blombos Cave project has adopted and established new and innovative research agendas in the study of southern African prehistory.

More details

Still Bay bifacial points

Still Bay points are the fossiles directeurs of the Still Bay techno-complex, and they conform to bifacially worked stone points, popularly referred to as “lance-heads”, “laurel leaf-shaped” or “willow leaf-shaped” stone points. more than 500 points or point fragments have been recovered. It has been argued that the bifacial points were hafted and used primarily as spear points.

Earliest known rock drawing

In 2011, archeologists found small rock fragment with the nine red lines drawn on the rock were handmade and from an ochre crayon dating back 73,000 years. This makes it the oldest known abstract rock drawing. geometrical markings are an astonishing example of a very early creative behavior. Through a combination of microscopic examination of the stone and experiments that set out to recreate the pattern, the researchers conclude that the drawing was made with an ochre crayon. While most of the lines were made in single strokes, others were created by rubbing the ochre back and forth. To achieve such narrow lines, the ochre must have been hard and pointed, its tip between one and three millimetres wide, according to a report in the journal, Nature.

Red Ochre

Ochre – an iron-rich mineral – is regularly found at Stone Age sites throughout southern Africa, and has also been recovered from the Middle Stone Age levels in Blombos Cave. Many of them show use-wear traces from intentional use and processing.

The soft, iron-rich ochre would have been ground to powder and turned into a reddish paint, perhaps for cave or body painting. Shell beads and bone tools found alongside the ochre stones support the idea that the early humans using this cave were interested in ornamentation. but its use may also have served some functional role, e.g. as an ingredient in mastic, skin protection against sun or insects, as soft-hammers for delicate knapping, as a hide preservative or as medicine.

Analysis shows that a liquefied pigment-rich mixture was produced and stored in the shells of two Haliotis midae (abalone), and that ochre, bone, charcoal, grindstones, and hammer-stones also formed a composite part of the toolkits. It documents the first known instance for the deliberate planning, production and curation of a pigmented compound and for the use of a container.

Bone tools

Formal bone tools are relatively rare artefacts to find at MSA sites. At Blombos Cave several bone tools, including awls and bone points, have been recovered from both the Later Stone Age and Middle Stone Age sequences. More than thirty bone tools, e.g. awls and polished bone points, have been attributed to the Still Bay units.

Nassarius kraussianus marine shell beads

More than 70 marine shell beads of the sea snail species Nassarius kraussianus have been found in the M1 and Upper M2 phases at Blombos Cave. A cluster of 24 perforated Nassarius kraussianus has found and are assumed to have worn as a personal ornament.

Blombos Cave shell beads

The wearing and display of personal ornaments during the Still Bay phase was not idiosyncratic. In-depth analyses of the Blombos Cave shell beads deriving from various levels and squares within the site demonstrate chronological regularities and variability, in terms of manufacture, stringing method and design of the bead works.

Human remains

No skeletal remains have been found in Blombos Cave and the amount of other types of recovered human material from the Middle Stone Age units amounts only to seven teeth. The crown diameters of at least some of these teeth are morphometric “modern” in terms of tooth size reduction, implying that the humans occupying Blombos Cave were anatomically modern. This conclusion is supported by similar evidence from a nearby archaeological site, Klasies River Caves, that dates to a similar time period.

Faunal remains

At Blombos Cave a great variety of terrestrial and marine faunal remains are consistently found throughout the Later Stone Age and Middle Stone age phases. The faunal record from Blombos Cave shows that Middle Stone Age people practiced a subsistence strategy that included a very broad range of animals. This means they were able to hunt large animals, such as eland, but also gathered, collected or trapped small animals such as tortoises, hyraxes and dune mole rats. They also brought seal, dolphin and probably whale meat back to the cave. The latter two were almost certainly scavenged from beach wash-ups, but seals may have been speared or clubbed.

The faunal remains recovered include specifically: fish, shellfish, birds, tortoise and ostrich egg shell, and mammals of various sizes. The amount of shellfish recovered from the various Middle Stone Age units show that people were regularly collecting them at the shore and bringing them back to the cave for consumption. Common species include the giant periwinkle (Turbo sarmaticus), limpets (Patella spp.), and brown mussels (Perna perna). It demonstrates that people during this period practiced a diverse set of subsistence and procurements strategies and were able to effectively hunt, trap and collect coastal, as well as terrestrial, resources.

Among the unique attributes of modern humans are symbolic culture manifested in language, ritual and art. We recognise the most remote practice of such symbolic culture in Blombos Cave, Africa. So, it is assumed that it’s from Africa itself our ancestors carried the primitive form of creativity to spread all the human population around the globe. It is so enthralling to see those evidences in this cave, fortunately left undestroyed.

Africa was the birth-place of Homo sapiens and has the earliest evidence for symbolic behaviour and complex technologies. The best-attested early flowering of these distinctive features was in a glacial refuge zone on the southern coast 100–70 ka, with fewer indications in eastern Africa until after 70 ka. Yet it was eastern Africa, not the south, that witnessed the first major demographic expansion, 70–60 ka, which led to the peopling of the rest of the world. One possible explanation is that important cultural traits were transmitted from south to east at this time. Here we identify a mitochondrial signal of such a dispersal soon after 70 ka – the only time in the last 200,000 years that humid climate conditions encompassed southern and tropical Africa. This dispersal immediately preceded the out-of-Africa expansions, potentially providing the trigger for these expansions by transmitting significant cultural elements from the southern African refuge.

You cannot copy content of this page