In 1991 archeologist Chris Henshilwood dug an oblong piece of ochre small enough to fit in the hand out of the 77,000-year-old level of Blombos Cave, on the coast of South Africa east of Cape Town and near the southernmost point of the continent. The cave mouth had a narrow lip overlooking a nearly vertical drop 200 feet above the Indian Ocean. Surf crashed onto apartment-house-sized boulders directly below. At the floor level the ceiling was so low a person five feet tall could only crouch or sit inside, yet the cave held numerous bifacial blades, bone tools, hearths, shells from local tortoises and seals, and from the mollusks and crustaceans still common in tide pools along the wild coast’s beaches.
The ochre, abundant in the strata across 25,000 years of sporadic occupation, could have been used for body ornamentation—people all over the world still dye their skin and hair with its oily red color—powdered and moistened as a mastic for affixing tiny stone bladelets to a wood or bone haft, or both. The nearest source of the naturally occurring earth pigment lay nine kilometers away, meaning it had been carried there deliberately and for a purpose. Added to the existence of shell beads from the mollusk species Nassarius kraussianus, or tick shell, a small whelk common in nearby river estuaries, either use (the ornamental or practical), and the distance from the source would have added to the growing evidence of some altering, some change in the habits, minds and intelligence of the coast’s Middle Stone Age Homo sapiens.
So far more than 8000 pieces of ochre have come out of Blombos, an extraordinary concentration. But this particular ochre was special, oily earthen red, its edges squared by human hands and holding a distinct diamond pattern etched into two of its facing sides. The design may have been from nature—like the diamondback pattern many reptiles exhibit—it may have been an abstraction or something seen in a vision, but it is still common in traditional art and designs all over the world. If the date held up, the ochre would have been the oldest geometric representation of any kind etched into a durable material—a symbolic expression in material form, hard evidence for the artist’s ability to think metaphorically, therefore possibly to have language, story, religion.
At the time of Henshilwood’s discovery, however, the science had already begun to coalesce around the period beginning around 50,000 years ago, when Homo sapiens started showing up in Western Europe, competing with and supplanting the Neanderthal, as the moment when the archaeological record showed the beginnings of “external symbolic storage” in the sudden appearance of cave art paintings, and in the evidence like beads from distantly acquired materials for body ornamentation, symbolic of group identification and social hierarchy. These were all considered “markers” for the kinds of intelligence, feeling and expression we recognized as being like ourselves—“ourselves” in this case meaning the range and extent of present human expression. In other words, “modern.” Human.
Around the same time Richard Klein, a paleoanthropologist at Stanford University, had hypothesized that since every advance in stone tool technology had, up until the cave paintings, been associated with an increase in brain size, weight and density, it must have taken a genetic mutation, undetectable in the molecular, genetic or inner-cranial records, to cause the unexampled and sudden “creative explosion,” or “big bang,” as he called it, that characterized the cave art. Eons of mute hand axes, then voilà, along came Chauvet Pont d’Arc, the dramatic underground galleries in France’s Ardeche Valley, 33,000 years old and discovered only in 1992. Klein’s idea seemed grounded in the emerging materialist consensus of science regarding the mind, but he couldn’t prove it. Research money poured in that direction nevertheless. PhDs, post-docs and tenured chairs rode on the inevitable discovery through genetics or archaeology of some hard corroborating evidence. Then Henshilwood found his ochre.
Originally, Henshilwood had intended no more for his dig at Blombos than to uncover evidence for the modern precursors of the local Khoisan people, and to stop at the end of the Late Stone Age, 2000 years ago. And that’s what he did. He found what he was looking for, wrote his dissertation and got his PhD. Below 2000 years he’d hit a stratum of wind-driven dune sand six inches deep, with no sign of occupation. The sand should have told Henshilwood he’d reached the earliest occupation and nothing further remained to be found. But for some reason he still doesn’t understand he went back and kept digging, down through the sterile sand layer, and broke through at 50,000 years to artifacts from the short-lived Still Bay culture, named after the contemporary village a few miles down the coast. He found interesting bifacial blades and shells, but when he closed up the dig that season, he had no compelling reason, or money, to go back.
Yet he did. The ochre lay at a point 22,000 earlier than Klein’s 50,000 year mark, and 45,000 years earlier than Chauvet.
Leave aside for the moment exactly what we thought we meant by “human,” “creative,” or “symbolic.” Or why it seemed so important. Or that the Cro-Magnon people of Chauvet lived side by side with Neanderthals, a separate human species, for 35,000 years. Or why we still assumed that since the creative explosion happened, it must have happened exclusively in the genetic make-up of the brain.
The Blombos ochre was a far less dramatic find than Chauvet, by a long shot. Aesthetically you could call it understated, minimalist, as befit its stingier natural surroundings, the coast’s steep escarpments of boulders, Cape cobras and crashing surf. Yet there it was.
Some questioned the dating—the ochre could have sunk down from a shallower, later stratum—and existing methods couldn’t measure the ochre itself. So until something better came along Henshilwood knew he needed to support his case not only empirically but epistemologically, just as Klein had built a case to support his circumstantial evidence.
He also knew what the Oxbridge establishment had done to Stellenbosch University’s Hilary Deacon in the 1980s when Deacon had delivered papers there shortly before the end of apartheid on suspiciously symbolic looking finds from around Klasies River Mouth, in the Eastern Cape: nets for fishing, snares for dassies, or rock hyrax, the woodchuck-like denizen of the coastal cliffs; tortoise and ostrich shells that had been cracked open for food and used as tools. And beads. The reception had been brutal, not so much for the finds themselves, as for Deacon’s interpretation of them as “modern” in their evidence of social distinction, hierarchy, and symbolic thinking.
Klein and the current science had taken for granted that the creative explosion’s source and timing would be found in a brain mutation. The same assumption, that conscious states are brain states and nothing else, has driven many treatments for neurological disorders, opened the door to huge profits for drug companies and marginal improvements for Parkinson’s sufferers and the depressed. President Obama’s recent $30 billion initiative to “map the brain” is promoted as leading directly to a better understanding of the mind, as well as to cures for brain and psychological disorders. Indeed it’s hard to argue against evidence that injury to brain tissue damages an individual’s sense of self and agency, and ability to think.
But if the date of the Blombos ochre held up it would imply that human symbolic capacity—and by implication consciousness—had as much to do with where you found its evidence as when. In other words, it would remove “consciousness”—mind—as an exclusive property of the brain and move it to other organs, the rest of the body, perhaps outside the body.
Even for us to detect such a shift in expression it would have to be stored, according to the Canadian psychologist Merlin Donald; that is, cast into some sort of concrete physical manifestation sufficiently durable or protected to survive intact for millennia outside the brain. For instance, in the form of certain tools, pictures, representational objects. Speech, dance, music or ritual, all exhibit symbolic capacity, as well, and may in fact already have existed when the ochre was incised, but left no trace.
For Henshilwood it all rested on the dating. If that held up, it would mean the anatomical and cognitive capacity for symbolic thinking existed with the speciation event that produced Homo sapiens in central Africa 250,000 to 200,000 years ago and didn’t come from a random biological switch being thrown. Rather it grew out of our immediate experience of living in, interacting with and surviving within specific environments—places—and growing well-fed populations with the possibility for rich interactions.. We are shaped by the world, not by our genes. So the people who walked out of Africa beginning around 75,000 years ago already possessed fully modern brain anatomy and symbolic thought capacity, before they ever got to Europe.
The undertaking gave Henshilwood a good deal of pause: his own employment in a bad market depended on him getting it right. But he couldn’t not publish about it, any more than he could rebury the ochre and tell the world to forget he had found it. So he had to keep digging– in the earth to find corroborating evidence of his own, but also philosophically, to try to figure out exactly what it was he and his colleagues were finding, and what it was they were looking for.
By the time I got there the Blombos ochre had been widely accepted as authentic. Henshilwood had been written about in the New York Times; he was employed, well-financed and the recipient of well-deserved respect. As if by destiny the necessary dating technique had come along—single-grain optically stimulated luminescence, that measures the age of quartz in the surrounding layers—and shown what Henshilwood had known all along, that the ochre predated Klein’s 50,000 year mark by 22 millenia.
I spent three days observing the dig at the beginning of the 2009 season. Early mornings I rode with Henshilwood and his crew, plowing through the coastal scrub to the edge of the escarpment in his powerful Toyota. There we unloaded the equipment and walked for a mile on the steep narrow path, laterally and down across the slope to the cave-site. We all carried something: a jug of water, a heavy instrument in a backpack, a fuel can. It was rough going. The rugged coast curved vertiginously away in both directions and plunged down to the indigo water bereft of any human sign but the very rare local fishing boat. The trail had abrupt drop-offs and switchbacks, and empty gaps you had to hop across with your load. The colors were pale blue, deep blue edging toward violet, pale green, earthy sulfur.
The cave mouth and lip lay under an even larger overhanging ledge that made a grand amphitheater in the cliff. You approached it from slightly below and the effect of it looming over you felt orchestral, self-minimizing. A hundred feet above the cave a much larger cave yawned inside the amphitheater, its ceiling fallen and huge fractured blocks rendering its presumed rich lode of artifacts beyond the reach of archeology.
On our first day the crew opened the cave mouth, removing the sandbags that had blocked it over the winter from coastal storms and possible looters, while I watched or climbed down the steep pitch to explore amid the jumble of huge boulders at low tide.
When everything was set up, and half the morning had passed, Henshilwood lectured the team, which included his co-director Karin van Niekerk, use wear specialist Renata Garcia-Moreno and three grad students. Previous digs had been compromised by bad techniques and practices, Henshilwood began. “We always excavate from the known into the unknown,” he reminded them, so they had to shave away the surface of a level rather than dig straight down and harm or disturb invisible objects. He described how they divided a level into subdivisions of what they believed to be single occupations, though they had no way of being sure, and used an instrument called a zed level—the same sort of water level used to build the pyramids, he pointed out—to measure the depths of the finds and plot the exact locations of the hearths.
“We want to find out where the people were living,” Henshilwood said, “because most of the tool concentrations are around hearth areas. That’s where people would have been sitting, that’s where they would have been talking to one other, socializing, making their beads, making their stone tools. Obviously, they were eating around the fire but certainly we think a lot of the production was around the fire.
“So we’re interested in spatial patterns. You’re looking for how people used space when they lived here, not just looking for stuff.”
Every day I peered over the edge of the excavation, down onto the square where Henshilwood sat on his stool wielding his brush and scraper. Behind him the rest of the crew stood by recording data, measuring and cataloguing his finds and placing them in plastic bags. He wore an instrument like a loupe on a headband, and plied a brush and small trowel over each quadrant of his square meter at the 100,000 year level, taking pains to expose its riches, mostly shell and ochre fragments, and record their relation to one another, the importance of the hearth and use of space being signatory of symbolic awareness.
Six-four, resembling Sam Shepard, Henshilwood had fished the surf and tide pools, caught and shelled the same local mollusks and crustaceans, the same tortoises, hunted and roasted the same dassies as the shells and bones he was finding in the three-foot square hearth. Nothing here was strange or new to him—it had shaped him and shaped his view, as it must have the ancestors he studied.
The cave lay, fortuitously as it turned out, on property Henshilwood’s anti-apartheid Liberal Party family had owned since the thirties (his grandfather was a Supreme Court judge from Cape Town), a sizeable frontage of coastline as well as upland farmland and fynbos, the weird and hyper-diverse chaparral-like ecosystem formed by the Western Cape’s Mediterranean climate, nutrient poor soils and fire. The compound of houses and outbuildings nestled at the edge of the dune where miles of curving protected public beaches ran up against the sea-and-wind-blasted sandstone cliffs and rubble falls between there and Still Bay. The cave lay in that direction, a little more than a mile to the east.
Henshilwood had walked the coast in the eighties as a late-blooming grad student, having earned the right after proving himself a competent but reluctant scion of his family’s dry goods and department store business in Cape Town. The coast was archaeological terra incognita at the time, and he was looking for dissertation material. He worked his way west, starting from Still Bay, and followed a zig-zag course up the escarpment and down for four weeks, getting water from springs that emerged at the shore level. The cave and the property lay about halfway along his course. When he rolled over the dune that blocked the cave’s narrow mouth he remembered having found and explored it as kid, when he and his brother were finding hearths and Middle Stone Age artifacts on the top of the escarpment.
Evenings we ate grilled ostrich steaks on the veranda gazing at the sun setting behind Cape Agulhas, the southernmost point of Africa, seventy or eight miles west. The backs and fins of dolphins shone iridescent in the foamy troughs and crests of the slow-breaking waves, and Henshilwood told me he had seen dozens of Southern right whales at a time out there during calving season. Upwelling currents from deep canyons offshore keep the seas rich with plankton and crustaceans that draw the larger predatory species, as well as seals and otters, great white sharks and a variety of indigenous game fish.
The walls of the main house in the dunes held faded snapshots and Kodachrome prints of great looking outdoorsmen and women holding up enormous rock cod, and kingfish; and portraits of local Khoisan and Afrikaner farmers and neighbors. Stone blades, most from the Middle or Later Stone Ages, lay on the windowsill over the kitchen sink and in the front hall, on the coffee table and on top of the piano. The west end of the building opened onto the outdoor terraces looking down over the curving scythe of protected beach and operatic surf.
The whole thing—the house, the cave, the ochre—had a weird improbable quality that had helped cast initial doubts on the discoveries of a freshly minted PhD, yet also made it seem fated. A lot had been going on in South African archaeology. Caves up and down the coast were giving up evidence of a flow back and forth between symbolic early cultures, the advances and disappearances partly climate driven, and of new food sources like protein and fat-rich shellfish increasing brain density, body sizes and populations, all around 100,000 to 50,000 years ago. At the University of Witwatersrand, in Johannesburg, anthropologist David Lewis-Williams had teamed up with the father of French cave art studies, Jean Clottes, and proposed a shamanic theory of rock and cave art, and of early consciousness, wherein altered states produced recurring neurologically-induced geometric patterns that got projected on the walls, cliffs and on hand-held objects—spirals, cross-hatchings and diamonds—and that conferred on the artist access to the hidden dimension behind the rock surface.
So the ochre hadn’t emerged in a vacuum.
I had gone to Blombos expressly to get as close as I could to the geographic origins of consciousness, and to trace that line where our subjective experience and the physical world flowed together. For the moment, this particular stretch of coast owned the most tangible claim to that distinction.
Here we found the earliest empirical evidence for some aspect of human consciousness we called symbolic thinking, and the place couldn’t have been more stretched out, bleached out, crooked, weathered, hammered, broken, relentless, difficult. That it carried strange overtones as well didn’t surprise me. Out of it had emerged a new kind of visible thing—a diamond pattern scratched on a rock that may have been the same design its creator wore on his body. And the place wasn’t only strange. It was as wild as you could get.
Ian Tattersall is a primatologist and specialist in lemurs, the languorous and strange tree-dwelling primates of Madagascar, but his work has wandered among the related fields of paleontology and human origins. A few months before going to South Africa, I visited him at his lab in the American Museum of Natural History, in New York. He had recently published Becoming Human, a broad ranging discussion about the primate roots of the Upper Paleolithic “creative explosion,” and its causes and conditions. For him the European cave art of the last ice age represented a significant eruption of symbolic awareness into the physical world, after which everything changed. At the time, Klein’s hypothesis constituted the prevailing thinking on why it had happened, and all the attention was focused on Europe (no surprise) as its source. As a good reporter and scientist, Tattersall accepted Klein as the authority at the time. But there was a hedge in his writing.
Tattersall outlined the brain’s structural evolution, emphasizing that the current prefrontal and outer cortices and their supposedly higher functions were in direct communication only through the earlier evolved centers of the medulla and limbic systems. “However much we may prize our remarkable mental faculties, the old ‘primitive” brain is always lurking there underneath,” he said. In many ways we are still driven, usually unconsciously, by our pre-symbolic animal selves.
He went on to say that if the brain had an evolutionary history, then the modern brain “and the behavior it mediates” is a product of all those phases and everything earlier humans experienced and did in order to pass along their inheritance. “Thus we cannot look merely to entirely novel brain components to explain our cognitive powers.”
Tattersall sat in his lab surrounded by green metal filing cabinets and specimen drawers. Oak trees were leafing out on 78th St. through the high ceilinged windows. On a desk near his stood the well-known series of human heads modeled from actual skulls that illustrated hominid evolution and showed the full range of expression in the evolving faces, and the dawning awareness in the eyes.
Tattersall held his long fingers tented in front of him and had no trouble grasping my intention, having realized the direct link between environment and behavior.
I said that I assumed from his book’s emphasis on the cave art of the Vezere Valey of Dordogne, that I should begin looking there if I wanted to explore the geographic roots of human consciousness. “By all means you should go to Dordogne,” he said. “But I’m ready to accept the existence of symbolic thinking in some of the African finds,” such as Blombos. He suggested I be in touch with Hilary Deacon, but he seemed to be still digesting and awaiting further analysis of the information.
The land driving east from Cape Town was a patchwork of ecotypes: fynbos, karoo—the succulent dominated ecosystem of more arid regions; coastal grasslands, cultivated land, grazing land. When we left the N-1 and headed along the coast the mountains crowded the narrow coastal plain in some areas, coming almost to the water, showing deep canyons eroded out of the sandstone, and fynbos climbing the lower slopes to Afro-montane scrub forest, where leopards and Cape griffon vultures persisted.
Professor Hilary Deacon drove the three of us east in his little Toyota, immersed in a long disquisition on the range’s geology in a rapid stage whisper. Sarah Wurz, his former student and long-time coworker, contributed, objected and corrected him from the back seat.
Deacon had started out studying geology, he reminded us, and that background made possible his understanding of dating technology and how to interpret his finds that upturned many previous dates and theories. For the same reasons he believed the geology of the both the Atlantic and Indian ocean coasts created the conditions for the remarkable richness of Middle Stone Age archeological sites. The structure of the larger Homo sapiens brain, Deacon insisted, as a person who had spent years in the field observing environments, had largely been molded by human occupation of the coast and its adjacent ranges. Their variety and structure fostered the period’s advances in tool design and use, and the symbolic expression that took place there between 100,000 and 60,000 years ago.
“You’re looking at a landscape that’s been around for 60,000 years. There’s been no deposition since then, so you were dealing with the same landscape, or close to it,” that fostered this Middle Stone Age proliferation of symbolic cultures.
I wrote wildly in my notebook as the car careened over the surface roads amid the tearing traffic, catching as much as I could.
“It strikes me how uniform all these coastal MSA sites are,” he said. “The communication networks operated on that scale.” He meant that the population densities were high enough, and the culture consistent enough across hundreds of miles that the same kinds of artifacts existed in the same strata across the different sites. It meant that people traveled, met, shared knowledge and genes.
“Archaeologically, we’re seeing that unity. You’re not dealing with a fragmented thing. The sites preserve different aspects of the same thing.”
We were on our way to Die Kelders, an MSA cave site in a small former whaling village of the same name three hours east of Cape Town, one of the earliest discovered sites that showed the period’s distinctive innovations of bone and stone tool manufacture, shellfish gathering, small game and bovid hunting, all supporting greater body size and stamina, brain development and cooperation. The trip (and the lecture) was to console me for not being able to go to Klasies River Mouth, in the Eastern Cape, where Deacon had done his ground breaking work on the MSA, symbolic expression and the Howieson’s Poort culture of “backed tools.” Deacon’s reinterpreting of old data from Klasies, comparing it to new material from his more recent excavations, brought about his original argument for symbolic capacity in Middle Stone Age Africa. The pictures made Klaisies look dramatically beautiful and wild. So it seemed necessary and central to visit, and that had been the basis of our email exchanges.
Deacon had tried to get funding and put a trip together—he was eager to make it back there himself—but it hadn’t worked out. Plus, he was 78. Klasies lay on a private reserve nine hours from Cape Town, on a deserted stretch of coast. There had to be somebody in residence to let you in the gate, and when you arrived at the site you camped. You had to be self-contained and well-prepared.
So we were headed instead to Die Kelders. Deacon’s lecture was to assure me that it was “just as good as” Klasies River for my purposes, which turned out to be close to true. He also enjoyed talking about it.
Outside, the coastal mountains crowded the shore, narrowing the strip of coastal pastureland, and settlement grew sparse. As he drove Deacon kept coming back to the combined effects of place, food resources, and increasing population densities as all contributing to the pressure for the generational passing on of knowledge and the need for external symbolic storage—especially language, an important consideration given that empirical evidence for syntactical language was almost impossible to fix.
“The caves”—i.e. Blombos, Klasies River Mouth, Die Kelders, many others—“are a natural sampler of what’s going on,” he said. “You’re recording episodic visits of a group that is part of a larger regional population, which in turn is interconnected. You’re sampling all their communications and other connections.”
It was far from a complete record. Human presences down through the strata remained fairly consistent from 120,000 to 60,000 years ago, then nothing until about 20,000 years. Within that range were fluctuations, and within those fluctuations symbolic capacity persisted across the missing occupations.
Climate change figured in this coming and going, but it was unclear to what extent. The glaciation beginning about 100,000 years ago and lasting until 25,000, according to once source, was a “climatically variable period that at moments approached nearly interglacial conditions, while at others experienced abrupt and profound changes toward glacial climates.” In the African interior it caused widespread drought. Along the coast, it caused drought but also the repeated retreat and return of sea level, alternately fostering seafood and shellfish in the MSA diet, and absences in the archaeological record.
“You’ve got this contraction and expansion” in the population, he said. “The caves have more gaps in them than continuity and in the gaps the people are archaeologically invisible when population was somewhere else.
“In periods of aridity the whole system collapses,” he added. But symbolic capacity persisted over the gaps.
The road wound away from the coast range across the flats to Hermanus, a seaside harbor and tourist town with the usual sprawl of shanty neighborhoods on its outskirts. In the harbor we parked for a bathroom break. Seaside attractions, tourist traps, shops and restaurants lined the main drag that followed the curve of the high shore. I waited in a park on top of one of the cliffs common to the coast, while Sarah and Deacon went for ice cream.
Directly below me Bientangs’s Cave lay inside a long curving undercut of the cliff, with restaurants and houses built into it below the street level. The waves crashed directly below, and their residents and customers could look out through picture windows to watch Southern right whales, for which the place was famous, calving in the spring.
Sometimes, it was hard to see time and the world any other way than as layered vertically, with everything emerging out of a shared living foundation.
We admired the curving windy harbor for a few minutes and left, driving past ostrich farms down the coast to the east, where the sandstone mountains, 280 million years old, crowded the shore. In that mountain-coast, fynbos-and-forest regime an incredibly rich combination of habitats and species existed that had sustained MSA people through drought.
Fyn bos, (fane boss) in Afrikans–or fine bush–didn’t have a lot of trees but it did have a wealth of geophytes, plants with underground “storage organs”—corms, bulbs and tubers–that respond to and are dependent on fire. And the fynbos burns. Its soul is fire. Deacon believed the MSA people of the region knew how to light controlled burns to generate corm production in periods of scarcity.
So its people were fire-centric and that made them eurotypic— that is, tolerant of a wide variety of environmental and terrestrial conditions. Acheulean people—earlier hominids such as those of Olduvai Gorge, Deacon said, were stenotypic, or terrain specialists. They didn’t have the social mechanism to move through a whole landscape. “You are probably looking at smaller groups, in smaller areas, to maintain identity. But the MSA and LSA people could make use of the multiple eco-zones to survive in hard times.”
It followed then that the most important and useful kinds of information about the period were usually found around hearths, and in the separate spatial arrangement of the hearths themselves. Fire was central to MSA domestic life and to survival. “The hearths were layered over centuries of episodic occupations in the same cave locations. Traditionally, reproductive women owned the hearth. We are actually seeing women in these hearths,” Deacon said. (This is what Henshilwood was explaining to his students three weeks later when I finally made it to Blombos.)
We crossed a rich inland lagoon with Proteas arboria, one of the species Deacon had included in his study of fire-driven food sources, blooming along shore. The mountains retreated and fynbos dominated the rolling low coastal plain approaching the village of Die Kelders. There we turned off the coast road. At the corner three men looking dead lay passed out on the ground or propped against the ‘Welcome to Die Kelders’ sign, probably waiting for a ride. Deacon guided the car down along the sleepy lanes and warrens of the old village, with its protected beach and dunes, its smattering of mixed fishing shacks and second homes, and parked in a small lot overlooking the shore to the west and, directly beneath the streets, the cave.
Before heading down the long steep stairway to the cave level, we stood around on the landing examining the sweep of shore, dune, steep high bluff and distant mountains. “You’ve got a picture here of the geological history of the whole coast,” the professor said.
Here it was again, time stacked up in a vertical column, all the conditions of the past playing out in infinite continuity, one unfolding thing happening all the time, like a myth.
The wind whipped the old man’s thin hair while he and Sarah bantered and squabbled as they obviously did by long habit. You could see how their discoveries had emerged out of a testy and demanding, yet collaborative dialogue, how it had taken such informed shared practical experience to forge an argument based on empirical evidence for a changed view, and you could feel the kind of energy that must have gathered around that collaboration and eventual acceptance by Oxbridge of Deacon’s work.
But now it was two, and we had to get back to Cape Town. Hilary stayed on the landing to smoke. I followed Sarah down the steep stairway and out across the rubble of boulders to the thumbnail beach just below the cave, a gentle curve shielded by rocks from the trance-inducing waves. She bounded in the sun from rock to rock toward the cave entrance, barefoot, while I stumbled along in my nylon paddler’s sandals. Great surfing rollers piled up on the adjacent public beach. The soaring western portal of the cave yawned overhead. Doves and swifts flew in and out.
She waited for me at the cave mouth, where we had to pass through a narrow chute, the perfect “hole in the wall” defense. After some scrambling we stood under the arch of the entrance, looking back and down at the thumbnail beach and the stretch of the coast toward the west. The surf resonated in the chamber of the cave.
“I assume all the caves are this dramatic,” I said.
“Oh, more,” she said.
When I had met her the day before in her office at Cape Town’s Iziko Museum, Sarah Wurz had resisted my stated purpose to find an “origin” for consciousness, by which I think she meant a thing that happened in the brain.
Her office looked out over the Company Gardens in downtown Cape Town, a jumble of filing cabinets and specimen drawers. For the museum she curated the artifacts from Blombos, Klasies River, Die Kelders and other sites, that recorded and preserved the evidence for the paradigm shift she helped advance. A number of Middle Stone Age artifacts had been laid out for my benefit—a handaxe from late Acheulean period, dating to around 400,000 years ago, a Still Point bifacial blade, and bladelets for one of the “backed tools” of the mysterious and ephemeral Howieson’s Poort culture, on which she had made her reputation. My previous book lay on her desk.
She didn’t think there had been a “moment,” as Klein had suggested, when the bulb of awareness came on, but that the ability to express symbolic capacity outward in material form had arisen gradually, over the course of hominid evolution. The larger sized brain had been present in earlier Homo species almost twice as long as we had been around, approximately 250,000 years. Earlier species had been able to mentally model in three dimensions and time in order to see and strike the fracture lines of a stone core. And it wasn’t until 100,000 years ago or so, she argued, that we started to see these signs of external symbolic storage in material objects. It took time for the physical manifestations of symbolic capacity to appear, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t already present.
Sarah Wurz had started out as a music teacher getting a psychology masters. Along the way she became interested in the evolution and origins of music, and began to study with Deacon. “The ability to track movement and rhythm is at the heart of symbolic cognition,” she said. “It’s already there a million years ago. Chimps dance.” The rhythmic foot stomping and body jerking they exhibited in certain group rituals, victories, and at waterfalls, etc. showed a tendency in our genetic line. Baboons mimicked the calls of birds, and communicated back and forth with them when signaling predators nearby. She cited Frans de Waal’s work with chimps and Stephen Mithen on early language, called “Hmmm,” for the kind of hyper-vocalized cooing and calling chimps do and that likely served as a precursor to syntactical speech. “Babies dance with you,” she added, holding up her hands in half-closed fists and rocking back and forth with an infant’s wide-eyed focus on the face.
So dance, song, mime could easily have been around a long time. The Blombos ochre, however, revealed the presence of “a different kind of cognition,” as she put it. An abstract mental image had been projected onto a physical object. For the first time, symbolic cognition jumped the wall of Cartesian dualism and landed in physical reality, where it had remained ever since.
“Symbolic behaviors drove behavioral changes in the brain,” she insisted, not the other way around. And symbolic behaviors arose within the mental narrative and identity structures provided by the immediate conditions of geography and ecosystem.
“It starts with landscapes. You have to start there and imagine what people were thinking. Otherwise you’re being dishonest.”
Inside the cave, limpet and mussel shell middens, centuries deep, mounded under the arched ceiling and the birds wheeled. We stood on the walkways where the cave had been restored following the last excavations. Shelves and steps into exposed trenches lay open around us, leading down a few feet lower and perhaps thirty feet to where the floor of the cave met the shore, still under the arch of the ceiling. Swifts flew in and out of that portal; oystercatchers and Cape fur seals played on boulders out beyond the mouth, where the surf mounded and bore up through a narrow channel into the cave, creating a great roar and force of suction.
Professor Deacon joined us watching the surf. The proportions, the vaulting ceiling, the light penetrating from multiple angles gave us a strange but pleasant sensation of enclosure and spaciousness at the same time. “The caves were rather smelly and damp, and it wasn’t about getting out of the rain,” he said. “They must have had meaning” connected to the idea of something “deeper.”
While they poked around, scratching professionally at various chips and detritus sticking out of the cave wall, I excused myself and took my cushion down to the rough shingle at the lower opening. The surf broke immediately offshore and surged up the narrow channel under the overhang. Sometimes the speed and size of the wave and the contraction of the former wave aligned and altered the cave’s interior pressure, causing a resonant thump.
I sat for twenty minutes or so at the edge of the tide. The surf dominated the sensory field and my attempt to visualize the lives of the cave’s Middle Stone Age inhabitants suffered from all the well-known blockages and obscurities. A couple of South African historians had concluded, with Borgesian ambiguity, “The earliest symbolic behaviors may not be easily recognizable, having taken forms that are outside our realm of experience and for which no modern analogues exist.” Yet every archaeologist I had met visualized the period she was digging in or studying, imagining what the people had sensed and how they had sensed it. Wasn’t that the whole point of the exercise?
The surf lapped at my shins and swifts circled my head. We knew from the artifact record that the MSA people of Die Kelders ate smaller wild bovids such as duikers and likely hunted larger ones such as gemsbok and eland. They may have had bows and arrows. They were semi-nomadic, moving with the seasonal food sources, wore beads, probably painted and scarified their bodies, used ostrich shells for canteens, oil or fat for lamps, probably had language and the stability and persistence—assisted by their access to new sources of fat and protein in game, birds and sea life—to pass new knowledge across generations. But none of this told me anything about their conscious experience.
They controlled fire, as Deacon had said; they transformed the landscape with it and ninety percent of the material useful as information came from the carbonized surround of hearth sites layered on top of each other in the same locations for thousands of years. Here perhaps was a doorway to the sensory world of Die Kelders and the MSA. Who hadn’t sat around a fire, stared into a fire, stirred and added to one, watched the flow of the evening, told or heard a story around one? Who can’t remember the elevated significance in the telling, the lowered voices, the action played out in the strobing light of the flames? Here drama began, certainly. Iroquois stories could only be told in the winter, by firelight. Now, sitting there, I could start to call up not only images but sensations, associations, echoes in the play of light and heat, the outer dark, the predators circling beyond the ring of light, the transmission of important information, the flow and vividness of the associated mental imagery. The shared safety and animal heat. The sex.
The capacity for trance states that often accompanied such moments went along with symbolic capacity, Henshilwood had written. Shinzen Young, the Buddhist monk and meditation teacher, would say, as he had said to me, that pre-agricultural people had frequent occasion to sit around waiting—for food, for an animal, for spring, for anything that might necessitate action. Cold, hunger, sleeplessness: these were the perfect conditions to “fall into equanimity,” as Shinzen put it, usually meaning some kind of enlightenment or visionary state. It could also mean nothing more than the kind of reflective continuous attention that solved problems, imagined possible futures, and saw how one thing was like another thing. Perhaps how everything was like something else.
After twenty minutes Sarah approached me from behind. The waves came together with a smack.
“The surf and wind sound different in every part of the cave, “she said. “You can feel it in your body.”
“So then they”—meaning the MSA people—“would have felt it, too,” I said.
“That’s what I think.”
We made our way to the back of the cave and the top of the midden, where Deacon waited on the platform. The professor remarked on the amount of quartz in the ceiling and walls of the cave. Just then Sarah leaned in toward the wall and picked at a flake of quartz that looked, she thought, like one of the backed blades that Howiesen’s Poort people inserted into a shaft or handle to lend mechanical advantage to a variety of tools. You could see marks that resembled the fine wedges where the flakes had been struck from the quartz platform.
I took her picture like that, bending forward, peering and examining through the touch of her bent finger the possible vestige of dawning consciousness. In the looking, the informed close attention and direct physical touch, you could see the story of who and what we were, what we “represented,” the creature with the capacity to explore itself, to peer not so far back, really, to visualize and realize how it came to exist. The gesture embodied the phenomenon.
CHRISTOPHER SHAW is a former editor of Adirondack Life, and author of Sacred Monkey River: A Canoe Trip with the Gods. He teaches writing at Middlebury College. “The Symbolic Coast” is from his work-in-progress, The Source.