Evidence found in South African caves and other sites show that early modern humans began to manipulate natural materials for carrying water, ornamentation, and possibly symbolic uses.

An innovation characteristic of early modern humans is the production of water flasks out of ostrich eggs. Modern hunter-gatherers use these to carry water and even store it for the future in areas that get really dry. The earliest evidence for this is on the west coast of South Africa dating to about 70,000 years ago.

110,000 year old shells excavated from Pinnacle Point, South Africa (left) and 10,000 year old pierced shell pendants from Arma Veirana, Italy.
Image credit Erich Fisher (left), https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-021-02804-z (right)

The modern hunter-gatherer tool kit also includes pigments, and these begin to appear by about 300,000 years ago. By 160,000 years ago in South Africa, there are beautiful and abundant examples of heavily worked pigments that show grinding, probably to produce powders for painting. Some sites have hundreds of pieces, and at 110,000 years ago, there are examples of pigment mixing bowls in abalone shells. There are other artifacts of symbolic character. Sea shells are collected along the coast of South Africa, and on the coasts of South Africa and Morocco beads are made out of sea shells.

Researchers excavating deep in cave sites at Pinnacle Point, South Africa, find evidence of early modern humans using shells for beads and to scrape red ochre, possibly to use for painting or body ornamentation.
Image credit Erich Fisher

By about 160,000 years ago, we see the first clear signs that the African hunter-gatherer tool kit is at least in its formative stages, and by 70,000 years ago that it has matured and is recognizable in the record as being fully developed.

Written by Curtis Marean PhD

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