In the Eurasian Upper Palaeolithic era (about 35,000 years ago) abstract or depictional images provide evidence for cognitive abilities considered integral to modern human behavior. Abstract representations engraved on pieces of red ochre were recovered from the Middle Stone Age layers at Blombos Cave. A mean date of 77,000 years was obtained for the layers containing the engraved ochres by thermoluminescence dating…modern human behavior in Africa at least 35,000 years before the start of the Upper Palaeolithic. - Christopher S. Henshilwood, October 30, 2001.
      December 2, 2001: Artifacts in Africa Suggest An Earlier Modern Human - that was how the story broke over a month ago on the front page of the New York Times. Needless to say, however, the ramifications of the discovery have been edged aside by war, crumbling economies and Christmas shopping. However, as of January 11, 2001, with this cave site still under excavation, the press releases keep coming. “Two tiny pieces of engraved ochre are the oldest works of art ever discovered, scientists say, showing the artist in mankind was awakened, in Africa at least 77,000 years ago.”
      There is also some reason to conclude these African ancestors had acquired grammatical speech – after all, they would have required syntactic language in order to explain to others the meaning of the artwork. "Here we have a good indication of an ability to think in the abstract, to think in terms of the past, the present and the future, and that's one of the hallmarks of modern behavior. People were able to plan, " said one of the Blombos team anthropologists recently, summarizing the evidence. “Modern behavior” then (abstraction, language, planning, artistic expression and symbolic thought), on the basis of these new finds, appears to have emerged much earlier than previously believed. This was 35,000 years before more evolved Homo sapiens tool-makers emigrated to Europe, started whacking the less clever Neanderthals already there, and began decorating caves in France and Spain to spruce up the new digs.
      Anyway, back to South Africa, where finally, fish bones and skinning tools found in and about the cliff-side cave indicate there may have been 25 - 30 fishermen who used the spot overlooking the Indian Ocean as an outport base. "The artifacts were accompanied by the remains of shellfish and the bones of fish and numerous animals, including seals, dolphins, antelope, tortoises and hares, suggesting what Henshilwood described as a sophisticated economy adept at putting its tools to work," said one report. In other words, it may have been a satellite post for a larger, and as yet undiscovered center - a lost South African community predating the last Ice Age.
Sources: The Guardian : J. Meek, “World's first artwork found in Africa” -,4273,4333159,00.html. ; The Globe and Mail : K. Honey, “77,000-year-old abstract art? : Tiny pieces of etched ochre prove brainpower of early humans, scientist says” – ; Science Magazine : Christopher S. Henshilwood, et al. “Emergence of Modern Human Behavior: Middle Stone Age Engravings from South Africa” - Published online January 10 2002 ; Washington Post : "Find Fuels Debate on Origin of 'Modern' Behavior" -