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Excavation of early human sites: Here’s the guy you want on your team

stone and bone tools, Blombos Cave/Chris Henshilwood

In “Human evolution: Cultural roots” (Nature, February 15, 2012), Jeff Tollefson reports,

The Still Bay culture was one of the most advanced Middle Stone Age groups in Africa when it emerged some 78,000 years ago in a startlingly early flourishing of the human mind. Henshilwood’s excavations at Blombos Cave have revealed distinctive tools, including carefully worked stone points that probably served as knives and spear tips, and bits of rock inscribed with apparently symbolic designs. But evidence of the technology disappears abruptly in sediment about 71,000 years old, along with all proof of human habitation in southern Africa. It would be 7,000 years before a new culture appeared, with a markedly different toolkit, including crescent-shaped blades probably used as arrowheads.

Much much later, back at the ranch, …

Now a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Bergen, van Niekerk has been working with Henshilwood since the early days at Blombos. It’s a good life, she says, “and a lot of work”. On this day she finishes early and heads to Henshilwood’s beach house and scientific base to help a master’s student, Cornelia Albrektsen, to conduct an experiment using home-made stone and bone tools. They struggle for the better part of an hour trying to replicate the way ancient people might have opened shellfish. Then Henshilwood shows up.

He used to work in a department store before becoming an archaeologist:

“Give me one,” he says, grabbing a shell. Within minutes, Henshilwood pops open several snails and determines which tools work best. He then departs to clean up for dinner, leaving the stunned crew to finish the experiment. “It was really impressive,” Albrektsen says later. “He was getting all caveman-like.”

Or hardware man-like.

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