As is clear from responses to public lectures about human evolution and modern human origins, humans are especially interested in knowing their origin and the implications for how they have arrived to where they are today. Following this, scientific inquiry into the origins of distinctively human behaviors is a cornerstone issue in modern paleoanthropological and archaeological research. In southern Africa, the Middle Stone Age (MSA; ~40,000-250,000 years ago) provides the focus of this research, because during this time, all modern humans originated in Africa and a subset of these fully modern humans expanded out of Africa approximately 50,000 years ago. Within the MSA, the Still Bay and Howiesons Poort industries have become central to understanding of the development of this evolving human behavioral complexity, because both exhibit distinctive and innovate stone technologies as well as several of the earliest forms of evidence for symbolic expression, including the production of engravings and the use of ornaments. However, the specific contexts that stimulated these innovations remain unclear.

With National Science Foundation support, Dr. Teresa Steele and an international team from South Africa, Australia, Germany, and the USA will contribute significant new information by continuing excavation at Varsche Rivier (VR) 003, a newly discovered MSA site in the Knersvlakte of southern Namaqualand, Western Cape Province, South Africa. VR003 provides an exceptional opportunity to investigate human behavioral evolution during this critical phase of modern human origins. Preliminary work at the site has revealed a series of stone industries, along with animal bones, ostrich eggshells and landsnails. However, this sequence is visible only through two small windows into the deposit, but the site preserves much more. Continuing work at VR003 will advance knowledge of the evolution of human behavior during the MSA because the site 1) is one of only very few to preserve the above sequence of assemblages; 2) is located in an environmental zone that is distinct from other long-sequence sites and other MSA sites in general; 3) is situated within the spatial range of sites that preserve evidence of complex human behaviors, such as engraved ostrich eggshell and ochre, and therefore allows the testing of the ubiquity of these behaviors during the MSA; and 4) provides the opportunity to develop a robust chronology for these industries and to test previous models using independent laboratories and methods.

This project provides opportunities for strengthening existing collaborations with American, South African, German, and Australian colleagues and institutions. To train the next generation of researchers, multiple graduate students will participate. Results will be disseminated widely, not only as research papers presented at conferences and published in peer-reviewed journals, but also as raw datasets. The research group is participating in an INQUA HAB COMM Project, which aims to combine technological, behavioural, and environmental datasets from multiple Southern African research projects (including VR003) and make them accessible to others. In addition, results will be shared through formal teaching, local community public lectures, and educational outreach programs in the Unites States and South Africa. All materials that result from our work will be curated and accessible at Iziko South African Museum, Cape Town.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
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John E. Yellen
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University of California Davis
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