105,000-year-old artifacts found in Kalahari challenge the idea that human origins are related to coasts

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Stone tools, burnt eggshells, and other artifacts discovered in the Kalahari have prompted experts to question the long-held belief that coastal civilization emerged.

The items date back to over 100,000 years ago, when the South African desert received enough rain to support human inhabitants.

Researchers also found nearly two dozen small pieces of calcite, believed to be the oldest known crystals used by humans – suggesting that the spiritual ritual was part of humanity for a long time.

They were able to date their findings using luminescence dating, which measures sunlight accumulating in minerals over thousands of years.

Because the objects are contemporary with the oldest artifacts from coastal towns in southern Africa, experts say the early people in the Kalahari were just as innovative as their seaside neighbors.

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Calcite crystal shards, probably used in rituals, were among the artifacts found at Ga-Mohana Hill North Rockshelter in the southern Kalahari

Calcite crystal shards, probably used in rituals, were among the artifacts found at Ga-Mohana Hill North Rockshelter in the southern Kalahari

An international team of researchers located the items in a rock shelter on Ga-Mohana Hill, located above a vast savanna in the southern Kalahari basin.

Their excavation revealed hundreds of stone tools, as well as animal bones with signs of butchery, and 42 burnt ostrich eggshell fragments believed to have been used as water vessels.

They also discovered 22 white calcite crystals, all the size of a palm or smaller, that are believed to have a ritual purpose.

In South Africa, archaeological evidence for early Homo sapiens has mostly been discovered in coastal towns.

The distribution of artifacts in the rock shelter dates back 105,000 years, as old as any coastal town.  Their discovery has made experts question the long-held belief that coastal civilization originated

The distribution of artifacts in the rock shelter dates back 105,000 years, as old as any coastal town.  Their discovery has made experts question the long-held belief that coastal civilization originated

The distribution of artifacts in the rock shelter dates back 105,000 years, as old as any coastal town. Their discovery has made experts question the long-held belief that coastal civilization originated

That has led researchers to assume that we as a species come from there, said Jayne Wilkins, a paleoarchaeologist at the Australian Research Center for Human Evolution at Griffith University in Queensland, Australia.

Ga-Mohana Hill is more than 370 miles from the coastline, but their analysis, published March 31 in the journal Nature, dates the artifacts to about 105,000 years ago.

Spread of ostrich eggshells among archaeological sites in South Africa dating from 50,000 to 200,000 years ago

Spread of ostrich eggshells among archaeological sites in South Africa dating from 50,000 to 200,000 years ago

Spread of ostrich eggshells among archaeological sites in South Africa dating from 50,000 to 200,000 years ago

That makes them contemporary with some of the oldest items found on the South African coast.

“Our findings from this rock shelter show that overly simplified models of our species’ origins are no longer acceptable,” said Wilkins.

“There are indications that many regions of the African continent were involved, of which the Kalahari is just one.”

Because there are so few archaeological sites that go back that far, it is not clear whether developments in human activity occurred in one region and transferred to another, or originated independently in different places.

The finds are remarkable, she explains, because “there have been very few well-preserved, datable archaeological sites in the interior of southern Africa that can tell us about the origins of Homo sapiens.”

By the time the eggshells would have been used, the southern Kalahari was receiving enough rain to provide year-round water for its human residents, Science News reports.

Wilkins' team established the chronology of stone tools (pictured) and other items on Ga-Mohana Hill North Rockshelter using luminescence dating, which measures the natural light accumulating in tiny grains of quartz and feldspar

Wilkins' team established the chronology of stone tools (pictured) and other items on Ga-Mohana Hill North Rockshelter using luminescence dating, which measures the natural light accumulating in tiny grains of quartz and feldspar

Wilkins’ team established the chronology of stone tools (pictured) and other items on Ga-Mohana Hill North Rockshelter using luminescence dating, which measures the natural light accumulating in tiny grains of quartz and feldspar

Wilkins’ team established the chronology of the items on Ga-Mohana Hill North Rockshelter using a technique called luminescence dating, which measures natural light signals that accumulate in tiny grains of quartz and feldspar.

“You can think of each grain as a miniaturized clock, from which we can read this natural light or luminescence signal, which allows us to see the age of the archaeological sediment layers,” said study co-author Michael Meyer, a geologist at the University of Innsbruck in Austria. .

The process dated the deposit to about 105,000 years ago.

“This suggests that the early humans in the Kalahari were no less innovative than those on the coast,” Wilkins said.

Researchers found the likely source of the calcite crystals about 1.5 miles away from the Ga-Mohana North Rockshelter

Researchers found the likely source of the calcite crystals about 1.5 miles away from the Ga-Mohana North Rockshelter

Researchers found the likely source of the calcite crystals about 1.5 miles away from the Ga-Mohana North Rockshelter

Artifacts found in coastal excavations have been dated between 125,000 and 70,000 years ago, including a 100,000-year-old ‘art studio’ on the Southern Cape coast of South Africa with charcoal, grinding stones and shells filled with ocher pigment.

Although the crystals are unaltered, the team’s analysis indicates that they did not naturally end up in the sediment, but were “ deliberately collected objects, likely linked to spiritual beliefs and ritual, ” Wilkins said.

They have the likely source of the calcite about 2.5 miles from the Ga-Mohana North Rockshelter.

Prior to their research, the oldest crystals used by humans dated back about 80,000 years and were in another South African rock shelter.

An archaeological dig at Ga-Mohana Hill North Rockshelter, where early evidence of complex Homo sapiens behavior was found.  Local hunter-gatherers still use the shelter for ritual activities

An archaeological dig at Ga-Mohana Hill North Rockshelter, where early evidence of complex Homo sapiens behavior was found.  Local hunter-gatherers still use the shelter for ritual activities

An archaeological dig at Ga-Mohana Hill North Rockshelter, where early evidence of complex Homo sapiens behavior was found. Local hunter-gatherers still use the shelter for ritual activities

Local hunter-gatherers continue to use Ga-Mohana Hill for ritual activities, revealing a continuity that the researchers call “ remarkable. ”

“Many who visit Ga-Mohana Hill for ritual practice today see it as part of a network of places associated with the Great Water Snake (Nnoga ya metsi), a whimsical and shape-shifting creature,” Wilkins wrote in The Conversation.

“Places like Ga-Mohana Hill and its stories remain some of the most enduring intangible cultural artifacts of the past, linking modern indigenous South Africans with past communities.”

The name ‘Kalahari’ comes from ‘kgalagadi’, a word in the South African language Tswana that means ‘a waterless place’.

While not technically a true desert – there is too much rainfall to qualify – there are wide swaths with no permanent surface water.