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Innovative Homo sapiens behaviours 105,000 years ago in a wetter Kalahari

Abstract

The archaeological record of Africa provides the earliest evidence for the emergence of the complex symbolic and technological behaviours that characterize Homo sapiens1,2,3,4,5,6,7. The coastal setting of many archaeological sites of the Late Pleistocene epoch, and the abundant shellfish remains recovered from them, has led to a dominant narrative in which modern human origins in southern Africa are intrinsically tied to the coast and marine resources8,9,10,11,12, and behavioural innovations in the interior lag behind. However, stratified Late Pleistocene sites with good preservation and robust chronologies are rare in the interior of southern Africa, and the coastal hypothesis therefore remains untested. Here we show that early human innovations that are similar to those dated to around 105 thousand years ago (ka) in coastal southern Africa existed at around the same time among humans who lived over 600 km inland. We report evidence for the intentional collection of non-utilitarian objects (calcite crystals) and ostrich eggshell from excavations of a stratified rockshelter deposit in the southern Kalahari Basin, which we date by optically stimulated luminescence to around 105 ka. Uranium–thorium dating of relict tufa deposits indicates sporadic periods of substantial volumes of fresh, flowing water; the oldest of these episodes is dated to between 110 and 100 ka and is coeval with the archaeological deposit. Our results suggest that behavioural innovations among humans in the interior of southern Africa did not lag behind those of populations near the coast, and that these innovations may have developed within a wet savannah environment. Models that tie the emergence of behavioural innovations to the exploitation of coastal resources by our species may therefore require revision.

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Fig. 1: Non-utilitarian collected objects at GHN and in southern Africa.
Fig. 2: Distribution of OES across southern African archaeological sites dated to 50–200 ka.
Fig. 3: Dated cascade tufas.

Data availability

Data supporting the findings of this study are available within the Article and its Supplementary Information. The study used the Koninklijk Nederlands Meteorologisch Instituut climate explorer database, which is available at https://climexp.knmi.nl. After the current studies are complete, all materials will be accessioned by the McGregor Museum (Kimberley, South Africa).

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Acknowledgements

The research was funded by an Australian Research Council Discovery Early Career Research Award (DE 190100160) to J.W., a National Geographic Society – Waitt Grant to B.J.S., the National (South Africa) Research Foundation African Origins Platform (AOP150924142990) to R.P., the National Research Foundation Centre of Excellence in Palaeosciences (Operational Support Grants CoE2017-065 to J.W., COE2018-05OP to J.W., COE2018-10OP to R.P., COE2019-OP17 to J.W., a postdoctoral fellowship to B.J.S and student support bursaries to J.v.d.M., W.K. and A.H.), and a National Research Foundation Research Development Grant for Y-rated Researchers (116349) to J.W. We thank D. Morris, Kgosi P. P. Toto, S. Hall, M. Chazan, C. Marean, P. Beaumont, A. Herries, A. Brumm, N. Zachariou, T. Campbell, M. Cornelius, R. Blamey, C. Reason, the South African Heritage Resources Agency and the McGregor Museum; staff at the University of Cape Town (L. Hutton, D. Jacobs, D. Walbrugh, R. van der Merwe and J. Harrison); all student laboratory and field contributors who assisted (N. Naidoo, J. Louw, L. Richardson, N. Bickerton, A. Eltzholtz, J. Giesken, T. Jeggels, M. Crafford, T. Edwards, K. Matlhoko, A. Mdludlu, A. Munn, C. Shelton, P. Groenwalde, J. Burness, M. Heale, R. Westbrook, T. Patel, P. Chiware, B. Spruit and B. Getyengana); and, at the University of Melbourne, J. Woodhead, J. Hellstrom, S. Paul, R. Weij and H. Green. We pay respects to the traditional owners of the land on which GHN is located and thank the Baga Motlhware Traditional Council for permission to work at Ga-Mohana.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Contributions

J.W. conceived and coordinated this study. J.W., B.J.S. and K.S.B. directed archaeological excavations at GHN. R.P. directed the palaeoenvironmental study. B.J.S. directed the survey program. L.G. collected the OSL samples; L.G. and M.C.M. conducted the OSL analysis. J.W. analysed the archaeological crystals. J.W. and R.P. documented and collected geological crystals. B.C. analysed the faunal and OES assemblages with the assistance of A.H. R.P. and J.v.d.M. collected and analysed the tufa samples. W.K. conducted the rainfall attribution study. S.M. contributed to contextualizing the cultural value of the site. A.F.B., A.H. and J.W. analysed the lithic assemblage. All authors contributed to writing and editing the manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Jayne Wilkins.

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Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Additional information

Peer review information Nature thanks James Feathers, Pamela R. Willoughby and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work. Peer reviewer reports are available.

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Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Fig. 1 OSL data.

a, b, OSL decay curve (Tn) from a representative grain of sample GHN 1 (a) and the dose–response curve from the corresponding grain (b). c, e, g, i, Equivalent dose distributions are shown as radial plots for GHN 1 (n = 233) (c), GHN 2 (n = 386) (e), GHN 3 (n = 346) (g) and GHN 6 (n = 340) (i). The grey bars show 2σ equivalent dose ranges centred on the weighted mean equivalent dose values of the components fitted using the FMM. d, f, h, j, The main FMM component De value (left y axis, 1σ uncertainties) and corresponding proportions of grains (right y axis) are plotted for various FMM fits with σ values ranging from 20 to 35% for GHN 1 (d), GHN 2 (f), GHN 3 (h) and GHN 6 (j). The red circle indicates the best FMM fit used for age calculation on that basis of the optimized combination of number of components, σ value and the BIC and llik statistical parameters, as described in Methods.

Extended Data Fig. 2 Lithic artefacts and ochre from the DBSR.

a, Recurrent unidirectional prepared core showing upper, lateral, lower and platform view (specimen number 4642; chalcedonic black chert). Arrows show the direction of removal; circles indicate the presence of a negative bulb of percussion. b, Ochre, two views (specimen number 4576). c, Point showing dorsal and platform view (specimen number 2198; banded ironstone formation). d, Point with minimal retouch on right lateral (specimen number 4281; tuff). e, Blade (specimen number 13968; banded ironstone formation).

Extended Data Fig. 3 Geological sources of calcite on Ga-Mohana Hill.

a, b, Irregular calcite crystals (<1 cm in maximum dimension) have formed at the base of a tufa flow on the south side of the shelter. c, d, Small veins of bladed calcite aggregates (<1–2 cm in maximum width) occur within the dolomitic bedrock exposed at the north end of the shelter. e, Thin veins of bladed calcite aggregates (<1–2 cm in maximum width) in the ceiling of GHN.

Extended Data Fig. 4 Geological source of calcite located 2.5 km from GHN.

a, Dotted line indicates the dolomite exposure at which calcite crystal was collected. Scale bar, 1 km. b, Collected sample of calcite spar with rhomboidal cleavage, three views. Scale bar, 5 cm. c, Close-up image of cleavage planes. Scale bar, 5 cm.

Extended Data Fig. 5 Artefact distributions and context in the DBSR.

a, A georeferenced section photograph of the east wall of area A, highlighting locations of plotted finds (white dots); crystals and OES are indicated in colour. b, Calcite crystals (plotted find numbers 5033 and 5069) in situ in lot 300 of the DBSR. c, Calcite crystal (plotted find number 4929) in situ, infield sketch on tablet (lot 300 of the DBSR). d, Overview of GHN area A excavation. Photograph faces the southeast corner; north is to the left of the image. Boxed area shows the quadrants in the DBSR that contained the highest density of calcite crystals.

Extended Data Fig. 6 Laser ablation maps of 238U and 232Th concentrations in dated tufa samples.

a, b, Sample 18-17 (a) and sample 18-16 (b). Areas of low thorium and as high uranium as possible were selected for U–Th dating, and are marked with open freeform outlines.

Extended Data Fig. 7 Rainfall attribution at GHN.

a, Map showing the position of GHN (black star), and the cores MD96-204846,47 and RC11-12048. Red oval indicates area of warmer SST needed for increased rainfall over South Africa; blue oval indicates the area of cooler SST needed to increase rainfall. b, Winter seasonality index of South Africa103 generated with Worldclim 2 at 2.5-min resolution104. Green indicates year-round rainfall zone; blue indicates winter rainfall zone; red indicates summer rainfall zone. Black contour lines indicate total annual precipitation in mm. GHN is indicated by a black star. c, Change in SST (°C) versus time (thousands of years) taken from core MD96-2048 (purple plot indicating SST calculated from long chain alkenones and blue plot using glycerol dibiphytanyl glycerol tetraethers) and RC11-120 (red plot is summer SST, black plot is winter SST). Time range represented by GHN tufas is shown in the yellow box. d, Correlation of September Southern Oscillation index to November precipitation. Plot shows a positive 0.2–0.4 correlation close to GHN, but an indistinguishable correlation at the site. GHN is indicated by the black star. e, Correlation of September dipole mode index to November precipitation. Plot shows a negative 0.3–0.4 correlation in and around GHN. GHN is indicated by the black star.

Extended Data Table 1 Results of single-grain quartz OSL dating of the DBSR at GHN
Extended Data Table 2 Summary statistics of unmodified crystals recovered from GHN area A
Extended Data Table 3 Uranium–thorium age data for cascade tufa samples 18-16 and 18-17

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

This file contains a Supplementary Discussion, Supplementary Tables 1-2 and Supplementary References. Supplementary Table 1 tabulates early evidence in southern Africa for collected non-utilitarian objects and Supplementary Table 2 summarizes evidence for ostrich eggshell usage in southern Africa >40 ka.

Reporting Summary

Supplementary Data

This Excel file contains 8 worksheets that contain artefact analysis data, a summary of faunal taphonomy, a summary of SAR suitability for single grain OSL analysis, the OSL De component data, and the tabulation of sites used to construct Figure 2b.

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Wilkins, J., Schoville, B.J., Pickering, R. et al. Innovative Homo sapiens behaviours 105,000 years ago in a wetter Kalahari. Nature 592, 248–252 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-021-03419-0

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