When did human ancestors start behaving like us? Recent research has shown that our direct ancestor, Homo heidelbergensis, lived in Africa 600,000-200,000 years ago and was probably capable of behaviour such as language, symbol use and complex tool-making.The African archaeological record offers some clues to support this thesis, eg, ochre use, possibly for symbolic purposes, and the invention of tools made of multiple parts.Indirect fossil record evidence suggests that this large-brained species formed extended social networks using language.But all this evidence is sparse, poorly dated, unevenly distributed across the continent and insufficient to answer the questions of how, where, when or why these developments took place. This project aims both to add a significant bank of data to the evidence base and expand its geographical coverage.It will provide a research model archaeologists can use elsewhere to generate more data with which to investigate the deep roots of behaviours once thought to be the hallmark of Homo sapiens.
A multidisciplinary team will undertake excavation and analysis of three key localities (Victoria Falls, Kalambo Falls, Luangwa Valley) spanning 1100 km of south-central Africa which preserve artefacts from the period associated with H. heidelbergensis,the Early to Middle Stone Age transition,ESA/MSA,filling a large regional gap between the better known records of east and southern Africa.
The team includes archaeologists, dating specialists and a research group investigating how stone tools were made and used. Materials with high symbolic content such as beads are unlikely to survive from this period thus our primary focus is on technology as a window on the past. Recent research in east and South Africa points to an invention in tool-making that took place before 300,000 years ago,marking a break with long established traditions of the Early Stone Age. A conceptually new approach to problem solving appeared: the combining of separate parts to invent a new whole. The process of adding a stone to a handle and securing it by various means sounds simple but required levels of planning and learning not previously needed. The individual components were themselves made using other tools, other materials and routines of assembly. This recursive principle of 'combinatorial technology' underpins all later technologies including industrial manufacturing.
In the time of H. heidelbergensis we also see selection of purple, red and yellow ochres for purposes unknown but which in later periods have practical and symbolic values. These cognitively and socially complex behaviours, along with the fossil evidence for a large modern-like brain, point to a species that shared much with its descendant H. sapiens.
We lack the depth of archaeological data to answer the basic questions of time, place and processes of change that make this a potentially key interval in human evolution. This project addresses the need for an Africa-wide perspective on the ESA/MSA transition. Our regional focus offers a test case of a new model of research integrating the best of new dating methods with innovations in the study of early technology. A 'primitive technologist' embedded in the fieldwork will make and use replica tools from the time of the transition. Contemporary local knowledge about materials used in tool-making will be incorporated in the replication experiments. These data will be used to interpret patterns of microscopic wear that accumulate on artefact surfaces in their making and use.Traces of long decayed handles can now be identified by their distinctive patterns of damage. Organic residues may also survive on tool surfaces under the right conditions for preservation. We will be looking for these traces along with evidence of ochre use in the project sites. The results will be compared with what we already know about the ESA/MSA transition in Africa and the research model evaluated in a multidisciplinary workshop.