An older article that may have escaped the notice of some of our readers…and a great many archaeologists too.
By studying a particular class of stone tools from the site—tools that looked a lot like arrowheads—University of Johannesburg archaeologist Marlize Lombard and private scholar Laurel Phillipson, ended up telling us a lot about the origins of modern human behavior.
First, a little background. Until recently, many archaeologists believed in an event they dubbed the Great Leap Forward, or the Upper Paleolithic Revolution. Some 40,000 to 50,000 years ago, they theorized, Homo sapiens sapiens underwent some kind of neural reorganization—perhaps due to a genetic mutation–and suddenly became accomplished artists, jewelry makers, fishers, and sophisticated tool makers.
Dissenting archaeologists, however, suggested that the transition to behavioral modernity was a gradual affair unfolding over hundreds of thousands of years. And recently evidence of a slow transition has accumulated. At Blombos Cave in South Africa, for example, archaeologists found 75,000-year-old shell beads, 80,000 year-old bone tools, as well as possible evidence of fishing—all indicators pointing to modern thinking and behavior.
Now Lombard and Phillipson have come up with superb evidence of a much more sophisticated human behavior—the making of bows and arrows– 64,000 years ago. Examining a collection of artifacts, largely from Sibudu Cave, the pair measured the 79 small stone points to see whether they fit into the range of arrowheads. They did. Then they looked for characteristic signs of impact damage, analyzed microresidues along the edges for traces of animal tissue, and tested the backings for plant resins used to haft them. Everything pointed clearly to their use as arrowheads.