UNIVERSITY OF THE WITWATERSRAND, JOHANNESBURG

Blombos Cave

Blombos Cave (BBC) is a cave in a limestone cliff in South Africa. It is situated near Still Bay in the southern Cape (34025?S, 21013?E), some 100 m from the coast and 35 m above sea level. Professor Christopher Henshilwood, discovered the site in 1991.

It is an archaeological site made famous by the discovery there of two pieces of ochre engraved with abstract designs, 75,000-year-old beads made from Nassarius shells, and c. 80,000-year-old bone tools. Some of the earliest evidence for shellfishing and possibly fishing has been discovered at the site and dates to c. 140,000 years ago. The engraved pieces of ochre are regarded as the oldest known artwork.

The use of abstract symbolism on the engraved pieces of ochre and the presence of a complex tool kit suggests Middle Stone Age people were behaving in a cognitively modern way and had the advantages of syntactical language at least 80,000 years ago.

Initial excavations were by Christopher Henshilwood and Cedric Poggenpoel and later with a team of excavators. Under Henshilwood s direction the cave has been excavated from 1997 - 2009. Further excavations are planned for the future. The interior of the cave contains 55 sq. m of visible deposit with an estimated depth of 4 -5 m at the front and 3 m toward the rear. When excavations at BBC commenced in 1992 the cave entrance was almost totally sealed by dune sand, also, c. 20 cm of undisturbed aeolian sand overlay the surface of the Later Stone Age indicating no disturbance of the cave?s contents since the final Later Stone Age (LSA) occupation c. 290 years ago.

The modernity debate
The origins of modern? human behaviour generates lively debate, world wide, but evidence for its origins has long remained elusive. Published results from the BBC excavations complement recent and older findings from a number of African MSA sites that suggest some aspects of modern behaviour evolved during the early Late Pleistocene. Recent finds in > 70 000 year old African sites of objects bearing abstract engravings, large quantities of pigment and formal bone tools have been rejected by some as clear-cut evidence for behavioural modernity on the grounds of context, dating and/or because deliberate symbolic intent could not be warranted. The find of the BBC beads in the 75 ka levels and engraved ochres in the 75 ? 100 ka levels adds an unambiguous marker of symbolically mediated behaviour to the list of innovations already identified in the MSA. It clearly reflects the acquisition of fully modern cognitive abilities by southern African populations by perhaps 100 000 years. Further analyses of the BBC material and ongoing excavations is continuing to provide a firm foundation for investigating the early behavioural modernity of southern African hominids.

The Later Stone Age
The LSA deposits are less than 2 000 years old, not as deep as the Middle Stone Age (MSA), and are more massively bedded and undistorted. In addition, burned layers tend to be thicker and several appear to preserve their original hearth-like structures.

The Middle Stone Age
The five uppermost layers below LSA-MSA Hiatus are assigned to the M1 phase. Small basin-shaped ash and carbon hearths are common in this phase. Carbonised sand and organic ?partings?, a few millimetres thick, act as visual markers for the separation of discrete occupation layers.

Dating
Zenobia Jacobs dated the Blombos site using the single-grain optically stimulated luminescence method (OSL). Her recent work includes dating of more Still Bay and also Howieson?s Poort sites in South Africa.

Artefacts ? tools
At Blombos stone and bone tools were recovered. The M1 phase at Blombos Cave (BBC) contains high densities of bifacial points, the fossile directeur of the Still Bay Industry. Bone tools are an unexpected technological innovation in the Still Bay at Blombos Cave. Regarded as a distinctive marker in the Eurasian transition to modern cognitive behaviour they are rare at Middle Stone Age sites.

Artefacts ? shell beads
The discovery of more than 65 shell beads in the Still Bay techno-tradition at Blombos Cave has added a new dimension to the modern human behaviour debates. All the recovered Nassarius kraussianus ?tick? shells were carefully pierced using a bone tool to create a keyhole perforation.

Artefacts ? engraved ochre
At Blombos Cave more than 2000 pieces of ochre, many bearing signs of utilisation have been recovered from the Still Bay. Two deliberately engraved pieces come from the Still Bay phase and a further fourteen engraved pieces from Still Bay and preceding phases have been

Subsistence ? terrestrial and marine fauna remains
The faunal collection from BBC shows that MSA 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. In addition, fish and shellfish remains have been found at the site

Humans
The amount of human material recovered from the BBC MSA is small ? seven teeth. The crown diameters of at least some of these teeth suggest the people at BBC were probably anatomically modern.

 

Blombos Location
The Location of Blombos Cave

View from Blombos Cave
View from Blombos Cave


An engraved piece of ochre surrounded by bone points
An engraved piece of ochre surrounded by bone points and stone Still Bay points

Shell bead found in Blombos Cave
Shell bead found in Blombos Cave


Blombos Cave - Limpets
Blombos Cave - limpets