Friday, 2 March 2012

The 'MSA' and Modern Humans: It's Only a Matter of Time

What counts is not what sounds plausible, not what we would like to believe, not what one or two witnesses claim, but only what is supported by hard evidence rigorously and skeptically examined. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.   Carl Sagan 

BBC: Blombos Cave PPC: Pinnacle Point Caves KRM: Klasies River Mouth Cave
The southern African publishing machinery is in high gear when it comes to the so-called Middle Stone Age (MSA). It feels like there's a new claim every week. In this case, similar claims've been made before. But this time it's for ... are you ready for this? It's a big surprise, I know. But this example is...wait for it...Yes! The oldest piece of worked ochre ever reported! A-bloody-mazing! Those MSA people were modern humans for sure! And they were damned good at it, too, if I'm any judge! More on the ochre after I tell you why I'm telling you this.
     All the evidence points to these discoveries being the work of people like us--the skeletal remains from Klasies River Mouth at 75 to 125 kya (modern human, chins and all!), the Howieson's Poort stone artifacts at Bombos Cave and elsewhere from about 65 to about 60 kya (to all intents and purposes like the Mesolithic of Europe with its backed blades), the beads, the ochre, pigment grinding tools, and more. 
     The MSA of southern Africa is nothing like the Middle Palaeolithic of most other regions. Quite simply, while the Neanderthals and skeletally modern humans in Europe, southwestern Asia and northern Africa were still hacking flakes off 'Mousterian' bifacial cores [or handaxes, if you prefer], sometimes taking smaller flakes off the edges to keep them sharp, and trying to rejuvenated their bifacial cores with a prepared platform and a might whack intended to split the core in two (often only resulting in the removal of just a final flake--a 'Levallois' flake [if you prefer]), the MSA people of SA were acting just like you and I would have (minus all of the industrial culture accoutrements like white wine [most likely] and Saturday morning cartoons on TV).
Howieson's Poort lithics (Image credit)
    What to make of all this really early 'industry?' It's not a trivial point. As far as the archaeological record of the rest of the world goes, these people, at 100 ka and more, were upwards of 60 ka ahead of the cultural curve of the rest of the world. So it's an untrivial, and still open, question what kept people like us from doing, in the first 60 ka of modern human history, what members of the same species evidently did in an instant of geological time once we stepped outside of Africa. Let's face it, after about 40 to 50 ka ago it was like modern humans were shot out of a cannon. Australia was reached in the blink of a geological eye. Europe? Same story. Eastern Asia? The same. And during an ice age, no less. Eat your hearts out, Homo erectus! Homo sapiens rules!
     As you might imagine, I'm troubled by all this precocious behaviour on the part of antipodean Late Pleistocene southern Africans. It's a conundrum that I can't get out of my head. And every time a new claim comes down the 'pike I get more irked by my inability to explain it, or even to conjure up a plausible scenario. Believe me, this enigma is nothing like the other stuff that irks me [of which you're all aware by now]. This is us--unequivocally modern--but it's us when we shouldn't be there. I know. I know. That's not scientific, Rob. You should have an open mind. [That's all well and good, but an open mind isn't the same thing as an empty one--I need an answer, not a reminder of my shortcomings!]
     I'm confused, too, about use of the term Middle Stone Age for what is obviously the work of both skeletally and behaviorally (and cognitively) modern humans. Someone in the know might be able to help me here [if I could get the bleeping comments to work again!]. Is it called MSA because it's older than a certain arbitrary cut-off on the geological time scale? Why don't they just call it 'Earliest Upper Palaeolithic' or something like that? Somebody please explain!
     All of this very early modern human evidence from southern Africa reminds me a bit of the myriad claims for Pre-Clovis occupation of the Americas that have been erected, assailed, and finally collapsed under the weight of skepticism that usually accompanies such assertions. The artifacts are real. The dirt's real. But something's always wrong with the dates [except, perhaps, Calico Hills, where the eye of the beholder was just too clouded by its infatuation with broken rocks to see the forest for the trees]. That's the way it always ends, with a dying fall. The claims, one after another, are justifiably questioned. No resolution. But the claims fall by the wayside, and no one makes an effort to get them back in the mainstream. It's happened over and over and over again. My strong suspicion is that it's happening in South Africa, but without the questions, without the doubt. And that, alone, worries me, and suggests that there's a systemic problem.
     I have a fearless prediction. One day either the late dates for everything outside of Africa are going to be shown to be too young, or the inverse will prove to be the case. I think you know where my money is.
     One final thought. For years it's been the orthodoxy to think of the human lineage as having been on a slow march from ape-dom to humanity. You've heard it. Sure you have. For '99% of human history we were egalitarian hunter-gatherers.' [Stan: I remember you saying that in Old World back in '86--no shame implied. It has been the mantra for decades.] Then agriculture happened and we all went to Hell in a hand-basket and we ended up (some of us) Capitalists, and look where that's gotten us! [Ruth: I've always had a bone to pick with that one!]
     What if we weren't human until recently? In a way I think it lets us off the hook. After all, the first stone artifacts are 2.5 MILLION years old. If we've been thinking like we do now for 2.5 million years, I'd say we probably don't deserve to survive as a species, given the mess we seem to have made of things in just a few tens of thousands of years. BUT, if we only became human give or take 40,000 years ago, and if the first 30 of those were spent coping with an ice age, that means we've only had about 10,000 years to figure things out. I like that better. Because I think we're better than the long chronology paints us. I like to think that we've come a LONG way in 10 ka.   
     Think of it. Domestication at give or take 10. Cities and monumental architecture, art, writing, by, say, 8 or so. Philosophy, drama, mathematics, geometry, science, by 4 or so. I mean, if you look at it from the short chronology point of view, we look a lot better. I'd hate to think that we'd been at this whole human thing for 100,000 years.
     We'd seem REALLY pathetic.

Back to the ochre that persuaded me to write the above. With all due respect to Francesco d’Errico, Renata García Moreno, and Riaan F. Rifkin, authors of 'Technological, elemental and colorimetric analysis of an engraved ochre fragment from the Middle Stone Age levels of Klasies River Cave 1, South Africa' (Journal of Archaeological Science, 39, 942–952, 2012), I fail to see why this publication is so effing important. Imagine someone in Europe publishing this: 'Ooh, ooh, another piece of ochre from the Upper Palaeolithic of France!' They'd be laughed out of the academy--even if it were the oldest such artifact ever found. So, forgive me if I'm less than fired up about this amazingly complex and scholarly article about a lump of iron oxide with a bunch of scratches on it. Mind you, if the scratches spelled out the first five verses of Genesis, there might be a story there. Otherwise...yawn.

From d'Errico, Moreno and Rifkin 2012
I hope this, my attempt to explain more of my mystification with the MSA of southern Africa, hasn't kept any of you from your naps!
     Be well. Have a good weekend. Thanks for dropping by.


  1. Definitely interesting ideas! I don't know if you've seen this piece, but I've found Three Roots of Human Recency: Molecular Anthropology, the Refigured Acheulean, and the UNESCO Response to Auschwitz by Robert N. Proctor to be a great overview of some of these claims (also in parts hilarious). Proctor seems to be saying that claims about human recency or depth have been as much about the political currents as the evidence.

  2. Think of it. Domestication at give or take 10. Cities and monumental architecture, art, writing, by, say, 8 or so. Philosophy, drama, mathematics, geometry, science, by 4 or so. I mean, if you look at it from the short chronology point of view, we look a lot better. I'd hate to think that we'd been at this whole human thing for 100,000 years.
    We'd seem REALLY pathetic

    This is a very 'western' view on human accomplishment. Are you aware of the fact that there are hunter-gatherer communities today that never domesticate animals, grow crops, or build cities? Are these 'pathetic' too then?

  3. @Marco,
    Thank you for saying what I'm sure many of the readers thought but didn't write down.
    By calling our collective human efforts 'pathetic' I was attempting to characterize our shortcomings--bloodymindedness, brutality, genocide, class distinctions, Capitalism, Feudalism, and on and on. And yes, I know that today's hunter-gatherers are exempted. For me it would be truly pathetic if all of humanity's shortcomings were the end-point of 100,000 years (or more) of modern cognitive ability. I'm much more comfortable thinking about our positive collective accomplishments in the past 10,000 years or so, including the survival, by any means, of those cultures and societies that are materially 'different' from a Western point of view. By the way, don't you find it curious [I know I do] that in calling it a 'Western viewpoint' we're evincing a very Western sensibility?
    By the way, even with the 'short chronology' that I favour, I still think it's pathetic that we continue to hate, oppress, kill, steal, rape, wage war, and otherwise brutalize one another.
    I hope I've managed to clear up any misunderstanding


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