Blombos Cave

Anatomically Modern Humans of the Middle Paleolithic

Engraved ochres from Blombos Cave.
Engraved ochres from Blombos Cave. Henshilwood et al. 2002 / Science

Blombos Cave is a site at the very tip of South Africa where great strides in understanding the development of modern human beings are being taken these days. While much of the recent press attention has been on the scholarly debate on whether humans evolved once in Africa (the Out of Africa theory), or several times all over the world (the multiregional hypothesis), a quiet revolution has occurred centered on what it means to be human.

Blombos Cave and the Creative Explosion

For several decades--probably since the discovery of the Lascaux Caves in France--archaeologists believed that while anatomically modern Homo sapiens evolved somewhere between 100,000-150,000 years ago, humans didn't actually develop modern behaviors and thought processes until around 50,000-40,000 years ago. This event, known in some scientific circles as the "creative explosion," was announced by what researchers saw as a sudden blossoming of symbolic thought.

What researchers mean by symbolic thought is the ability to identify--and create--representations of things. Thus, the theory went, a species really not much smarter than other hominids of the time suddenly began painting bison and mammoth on cave walls in France. Evidence of the flowering of modern human behavior is held to including fishing, the manufacture of bone tools, the use of decoration, and the production of art.

Modern Behaviors in Africa

Part of the trouble was, none of the major scientists was really doing much research in Africa-there was a lot to be investigated in France, after all; but, in retrospect, the neglect of Africa is a little weird, since we've known for a very long time that that's where the earliest humans evolved.

Then, evidence of an earlier flourishing of the creative mind began to appear, in southern Africa south of the Zambezi River, dated to the Middle Stone Age, 70,000 years ago and more. Similar artifact collection types, known as assemblages, in archaeological parlance called Howiesons Poort and Stillbay, have been found at sites such as the Klasies River Caves, Boomplaas, and Die Kelders Cave I in South Africa.

These sites included sophisticated bone tools, backed blades, a careful selection of raw material for stone tools and the use of a punch technique; but most of these were controversial in one respect or another. That was until Blombos Cave.

Modern Behaviors at Blombos Cave

Since 1991, South African researchers led by Christopher Henshilwood have been working at the Blombos Cave site. Artifacts found there include sophisticated bone and stone tools, fish bones, and an abundance of used ochre. Ochre has no known economic function; it is almost universally accepted as a source of color for ceremonial, decorative purposes.

  • Read about 100,000 Year Old Paint Pots at Blombos Cave

The Blombos Cave layers containing used ochre are dated 70,000 to 80,000 years before the present. Most recently (April of 2004), a cluster of deliberately perforated and red-stained shell beads dating to the Middle Stone Age has been found and is being interpreted as personal ornaments or jewelry for the occupants of Blombos.

The best and most likely interpretation of these finds and numerous others throughout Africa is that the growth of the human symbolic thought was a slow process that continued throughout the Middle Stone Age in Africa. How that flourishing of creative thought left Africa is still under discussion, but one way is that the growth of the human symbolic thought was a slow process that continued throughout the Middle Stone Age in Africa. How that flourishing of creative thought left Africa is still under discussion, but one way may have been through the Southern Dispersal Route.

Flint Knapping at Blombos Cave

On October 28, 2010, researchers writing in Science magazine reported the discovery of advanced flint knapping. The photo essay "Flint Knapping Technology at Blombos Cave" includes a description of the cave, a discussion of what pressure flaking is, and the evidence identified at Blombos for pressure flaking.

Oh, and a bibliography, of course, with some great photos from the research team.


See the official Blombos Cave website for a great deal of information and photos about the ongoing excavations by Chris Henshilwood.

Thanks to Chris Hardaker for the suggestion and assistance in producing this article; to Scott MacEachern for his improvements, and to the (unwitting) members of Palanth-L whose fabulous archives were very helpful indeed.

d’Errico F, Henshilwood C, Vanhaeren M, and van Niekerk K. 2005. Nassarius kraussianus shell beads from Blombos Cave: evidence for symbolic behavior in the Middle Stone Age. Journal of Human Evolution 48(1):3-24.

d'Errico F. 2003. The invisible frontier. A multiple species model for the origin of behavioral modernity. Evolutionary Anthropology 12(4):188-202.

d'Errico F, Henshilwood CS, and Nilssen P. 2001. An engraved bone fragment from c. 70,000 year-old Middle Stone Age levels at Blombos Cave, South Africa; Implications for the origin of symbolism and language. Antiquity 75:309-318.

Henshilwood CS, d'Errico F, Marean CW, Milo RG, and Yates R. 2001. An early bone tool industry from the Middle Stone Age at Blombos Cave, South Africa: Implications for the origins of modern human behaviour , symbolism, and language. Journal of Human Evolution 41(6):631-678.

Henshilwood C, D'Errico F, Van Niekerk K, Coquinot Y, Jacobs Z, Lauritzen S-E, Menu M, and Garcia-Moreno R. 2011. A 100,000-Year-Old Ochre-Processing Workshop at Blombos Cave, South Africa. Science 334:219-222.

Henshilwood CS, d'Errico F, Yates R, Jacobs Z, Tribolo C, Duller GAT, Mercier N, Sealy JC, Valladas H, Watts I et al. 2002. Emergence of Modern Human Behavior: Middle Stone Age Engravings from South Africa. Science 295:1278-1280.

Jacobs Z, Duller GAT, Wintle AG, and Henshilwood CS. 2006. Extending the chronology of deposits at Blombos Cave, South Africa, back to 140 ka using optical dating of single and multiple grains of quartz. Journal of Human Evolution 51:255-273.

Lombard M. 2007.

 Evidence for Change in Middle Stone Age Hunting Behaviour at Blombos Cave: Results of a Macrofracture Analysis. The South African Archaeological Bulletin 62(185):62-67.

McBrearty S, and Brooks AS. 2000. The revolution that wasn't: a new interpretation of the origin of modern human behavior. Journal of Human Evolution 39(5):453-563.

McCall GS. 2007. Behavioral ecological models of lithic technological change during the later Middle Stone Age of South Africa. Journal of Archaeological Science 34(10):1738-1751.

Mourre V, Villa P, and Henshilwood C. 2010. Early use of pressure flaking on lithic artifacts at Blombos Cave, South Africa. Science 330:659-662.

Thompson JC, and Henshilwood CS. 2011. Taphonomic analysis of the Middle Stone Age larger mammal faunal assemblage from Blombos Cave, southern Cape, South Africa. Journal of Human Evolution  60(6):746-767.