Why anybody collects useless junk is a good question. It costs money or at least time and effort; it clutters up our space and its benefit is dubious (I have more cat stamps than you do, I win life?) Now, archaeologists report an inexplicable collection of apparently useless items dating to 105,000 years ago, in the heart of the Kalahari Desert.
Specifically, Jayne Wilkins of Brisbane University and colleagues report in Nature that early humans living 665 kilometers inland in the Kalahari 105,000 years ago were evincing complex behavior earlier than had been thought, and inland, not on the coast. The archaeologists found objects such as calcite crystals at the site, the Ga-Mohana Hill North Rockshelter, which had no obvious utilitarian purpose yet must have been deliberately collected and brought to the site.
The crystals could not have been deposited there naturally, since they don’t exist in or around the rock shelter, the archaeologists explain. The nearest source they could identify was a hill two-and-a-half kilometers away.
Also, the crystals were unworked, were too soft to use as stone tools, and were convenient to carry, being just 8 to 32 millimeters long – i.e., at most, about an inch. Ergo, they seem to have been useless.
The team also found ostrich eggshell fragments in the rock shelter, which may be the sorry remains of containers for water and were also likely brought to the site, the archaeologists suggest. Note that ostriches throng South Africa but don’t typically nest in rock shelters.
The Ga-Mohana Hill North Rockshelter had been occupied since at least the Middle Stone Age, the archaeologists say – and at the time, the Kalahari wasn’t a desert. “Tufa rim pools, barrages, cascades and breccia deposits are abundant at Ga-Mohana Hill, and are indicative of past shallow pools of standing water and flowing surface waters,” Wilkins and the team write..
Why is the inland discovery of early complex behavior surprising? There is a theory, which is going out of fashion, that Homo sapiens developed complex behaviors including collecting useless junk in coastal environments. There is also a theory that hominins exited Africa via the coasts.
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But first of all, absence of barking isn’t proof there’s no dog. If in Africa more Late Stone Age sites (with reliable stratification to aid dating) have been found on the coasts than inland, that could just mean the inland ones haven’t been found. In other words, it’s archaeological kismet.
Secondly, archaeologists have found an abundance of evidence that early humans ate seashells by the seashore, which has been taken as evidence of advanced behavior on the coasts. Yet seafood appreciation was not a uniquely sapiens thing. Neanderthals in Italy were diving for clams, a study claimed earlier this year. Also, a hominin, possibly but not definitively an erectus, engraved a zigzag on a clam in Java almost 500,000 years ago; we don’t know if said being ate the mollusk or just idly scratched its shell or what.
Also, our line has been present in South Africa all along, long before sapiens emerged. Finding evidence of advanced behavior on the coast doesn’t mean it didn't happen inland too. And it’s starting to look like the Homo line developed complexities, possibly including symbolism, from quite early on, well before modern humans arose.
Regarding those pretty but non-utile crystals found in the Kalahari rock shelter, they may be unique for their age in the annals of South African archaeology (so far) but evidence from Israel shows that much earlier hominins had an eye for beauty and may also have had a covetous streak, and not just on the coast.
In 2019, Israeli archaeologists reported on the discovery of useless junk in Qesem Cave from 300,000 years ago. In this case what they found were 17 pretty stones that didn’t belong there, i.e., they had been brought there and not by Homo sapiens, (though other research has indicated that anatomically modern sapiens were starting to emerge – witness the skull found in Jebel Irhoud, Morocco dated to 300,000 years ago and thought to be of an early Homo sapiens).
The Qesem stones seem to have had no utility other than to delight the eye and consternate the proto-Joneses. The archaeologists think they had been collected by prehistoric hominins for their aesthetic value. That study suggests that the Homo line developed behavioral complexities, from recycling to collecting eye-catching but useless junk, earlier than assumed.
Separate work by Prof. Ran Barkai and colleagues on hominins in Qesem Cave, and several other papers from elsewhere, address recycling stone tools in the Lower Paleolithic. Hominins took stone tools made millennia earlier, some of which had become gorgeously patinated (glossed with mineral coatings) and reworked them into new stone tools that retained their beauty. That doesn’t speak to a desire to collect, but it does suggest that at least sometimes, sources for stone tools were chosen based on looks.
Apropos earlier than assumed, not only were anatomically modern humans around in Africa at least 300,000 years ago; remains of early Homo sapiens were found in Israel and Greece dating to 200,000 years ago. Also, about 200,000 years ago is when the last common ancestor to all humankind lived, according to a study of mitochondrial DNA in today’s people. “Mitochondrial Eve” would have probably lived in Africa, though we must note that hominins and humans were leaving and returning to Africa – it wasn’t a one-way paleo-street.
Anyway, early exiters from Africa apparently went extinct; and the ancestors of all non-Africans left for Eurasia about 60,000 to 50,000 years ago, which is the time of the Upper Paleolithic.
And that, dear reader, the Upper Paleolithic, is also about when a plethora of technological advances emerged, including cave paintings, Pamela Rae Willoughby of the University of Alberta points out in a separate paper published in Nature on Wednesday, “Early Humans Living Inland Collected Unusual Objects” (referring to the crystals and eggshells). The earliest cave painting known to date is a picture of a pig in Indonesia, dating to about 45,500 years ago. That is certainly symbolism run riot.
One man’s useless junk
Israeli archaeologists are therefore not surprised by the South African discovery that early humans were collecting non-utile items665 kilometers from the coast, as well as possibly using containers for water (the eggshells) some 105,000 years ago. As we have shown, early humans were doing that elsewhere and earlier, and not on the beach.
In his opinion, says Prof. Ran Barkai of Tel Aviv University, “collecting crystals certainly is interesting, but not that unusual. Archaic humans collected all kinds of things: I don’t think that was unique to Homo sapiens.” Moreover, it is no longer dogma that innovation developed along the coasts, he adds.
Prof. Israel Hershkovitz, also of Tel Aviv University, stresses that all the early Homo sapiens sites in Israel where evidence of complex behavior has been found, are not on the coast, they’re pretty far from there.
Examples include an engraved eagle bone found at Nesher Ramle which dates to about 120,000 years ago. Beads were found at Skhul from 100,000 years ago; burial with ocher was identified at Qafzeh from about the same time; perforated shells found in northern Israel that may have been worn as earrings or pendants may be as old as 160,000 years, and indirectly suggest that early humans had cracked the concept of “string”; and there’s much more, Barkai and Hershkovitz point out.
In addition, obviously hominins and humans could have used seemingly non-utilitarian things for all kinds of reasons, Barkai notes.
“Crystals have been linked to spiritual beliefs and ritual for many time periods across the world, including Stone Age southern Africa,” write Wilkins and the team. So, the crystal collection in the rock shelter and pretty stones elsewhere could have had some sort use in the form of a symbolic significance that we could not, hundreds of thousands of years after the event, hope to recognize.