Human evolution: Past and Future

Identifying when our species’ capacity for innovation and cultural emerged

Researchers investigating the archaeological record of southern Africa are helping identify when our species’ capacity for innovation and cultural diversification emerged.

Archaeological research in South Africa is critical to our understanding of the cultural evolution of Homo sapiens, according to Associate Professor Alex Mackay, who researches the archaeology of southern Africa,

human behavioural evolution and lithic technologies and is Director of the Centre for Archaeological Science (@CAS_UOW) in the School of Earth, Atmospheric and Life Science.

“Across several Pleistocene and Holocene sites in southern Africa and over more than a decade we’ve uncovered evidence of technological innovations, social networks and cultural evolution among Homo sapiens throughout the Middle Stone Age,” A/Prof Mackay, who has directed multiple large multi-disciplinary teams in excavations that have uncovered numerous significant artefacts said.

At one Middle Stone Age site in southern Namaqualand, South Africa, known as Varsche Rivier 003 (VR003), A/Prof Mackay and colleagues at UOW and other institutions have for example uncovered some of the earliest documented evidence for the production of flasks capable of transporting liquid, of small stone tool (microlithic) technologies structured around the use of heat treatment, ostrich eggshell beads, as well as the long-distance transportation of economic marine shells.

Stone tools, artefacts that A/Prof Mackay specialises in analysing, are particularly valuable in our quest to understand the deep past.

“While other traces of human activity disappear over time, stone survives because it’s durable,” A/Prof Mackay once explained in The Conversation.

“We have used [stone artefacts] to build models of adaptation, information flow, trade networks and cultural identity.”

Uncovering all that an archaeological site has to reveal about early humans – their diets, behaviours, and the environments they occupied – requires interdisciplinary and high-level skills and technology. It also means expanding existing archaeological sites and examining them in a different light.

“Excavations at VR003 have focused on the talus slope and to a limited degree on the deposits in the adjacent shelter, the passage to which is blocked by roof-fall. We’re keen to expand the excavation site so we can examine the impact of changing climatic and environmental conditions on technological and cultural innovations among early modern humans.”

Collaborating with colleagues such as geochemist Professor Anthony Dosseto (@Dr_IsoTony), Director of both the GeoQuEST Research Centre and the Wollongong Isotope Geochronology Lab, and archaeologist and palaeoanthropologist Dr Christopher Ames from the School of Earth, Atmospheric and Life Sciences at UOW, means being able to investigate answers to complex questions such as how did early humans and societies manage environmental stresses brought on by rapidly rising sea levels and aridification.

“These are challenges that present and future societies are going to have to manage. Archaeology is in a unique position to provide long-term perspectives on the adaptive mechanisms of human groups in the face of such existential challenges and this kind of research can ultimately help us understand the capability of humans to withstand extreme climatic changes,” A/Prof Mackay explained.

“Work conducted by myself, Dosseto and Ames, alongside many others, have collaborated on research along the Doring River where multiple open-air archaeological sites have revealed patterns of human land use and technological developments from the Earlier Stone Age.

“Continuing this kind of collaborative work in southern Africa, expanding existing archaeological sites and further analysing artefacts already uncovered will help us understand what happened in the past as well as our capacity to manage current and future challenges.”