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Restoring pride in African people

- Wits University

Professor Christopher Henshilwood is the co-winner of the Vice-Chancellor’s research award.

Henshilwood currently holds a 15 year South Africa NRF-funded Research Chair and Distinguished Professorship within the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence for Palaeosciences at Wits, is A-rated by the National Research Foundation and is a Professor of African Prehistory in the Archaeology, History, Culture and Religion Institute at the University of Bergen, Norway.

“I believe the award was made because of the discoveries that my team and I have made over the past 20 years that have helped to restore pride in African people by demonstrating the principal role that Africa played in the evolution of our own species, Homo sapiens, a role that just two decades ago was accorded mostly to Europe,” says Henshilwood.

Since 1991, Henshilwood has directed excavations at Stone Age sites in South Africa. With his research team, he increasingly provides evidence for an African origin for behavioural and technological modernity associated with Homo sapiens from about 100 000 years ago and has decisively shown that Africa is the birthplace for the early development of modern human cognition.

“In sum, my work on early Homo sapiens’ cognitive abilities has frequently challenged mainframe views,” says Henshilwood.

“My discoveries, with my team, over the past four years of new archaeological sites located in the southern Cape will add significantly to existing knowledge of early Homo sapiens in southern Africa, especially in coastal environments.”

Henshilwood has published more than 60 papers in leading peer reviewed journals, volumes and books on aspects of African archaeology, especially the Middle and Later Stone Age; on the origins of language and symbolism; the effects of climatic variation on human demographics; and the epistemology of early behavioural evolution.

His research on the recognition of symbolic material culture among Middle Stone Age people and their ability for complex technology has enabled us to question the once dominant paradigm of a sudden European origin of human behavioural modernity. “A central achievement and focus of my many publications is recognising that the most ancient symbolic traditions in Africa date back at least 100 000 years,” he says.

For Henshilwood, excavating an archaeological site is like travelling in a time-machine.

“The deposits that were laid down up to 100 000 years ago in these sites by the direct ancestors of all of us, Homo sapiens, are still lying in the exact place in which they were put. It is a great privilege to painstakingly recover these deposits and to reconstruct, piece by piece, the daily lives of these ancient people,” he says.

Together with his intercontinental multi- and cross-disciplinary research teams in South Africa, Europe and the USA, Henshilwood says he will directly address some of the still unanswered questions about Homo sapiens in the next decade.

“Some of these questions include: when and why did humans first become ‘behaviourally modern’; did cognitive changes in the human brain accelerate behavioural variability; how were these groups of hunter gatherers socially organised; was social cohesion enhanced by the adoption of symbolic material culture; how adaptable were humans to environmental change and did climatic unpredictability act a driver for technological innovation and subsistence adaptations,” he says.

“Our research will focus explicitly on the period between 100 000 - 50 000 thousand years ago.”