Archaeology suggests no direct link between climate change and early human innovation

July 6, 2016, Public Library of Science
Archaeological sites suggest climate may not have been directly linked to cultural and technological innovations of Middle Stone Age humans in southern Africa, according to a study published July 6, 2016, in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Patrick Roberts from the University of Oxford, UK, and colleagues. Credit: Christopher Henshilwood

Environmental records obtained from archaeological sites suggest climate may not have been directly linked to cultural and technological innovations of Middle Stone Age humans in southern Africa, according to a study published July 6, 2016 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Patrick Roberts from the University of Oxford, UK, and colleagues.

The Middle Stone Age marked a period of dramatic change amongst early humans in southern Africa, and change has been postulated as a primary driver for the appearance of technological and cultural innovations such as bone tools, ochre production, and personal ornamentation. While some researchers suggest that climate instability may have directly inspired technological advances, others postulate that environmental stability may have provided a stable setting that allowed for experimentation. However, the disconnection of palaeoenvironmental records from archaeological sites makes it difficult to test these alternatives.

The authors of this study carried out analyses of animal remains, shellfish taxa and the stable carbon and oxygen isotope measurements in ostrich eggshell, from two , Blombos Cave and Klipdrift Shelter, spanning 98,000 to 73,000 years ago and 72,000 to 59,000 years ago, respectively, to acquire data regarding possible palaeoenvironmental conditions in southern Africa at the time. For instance, ostrich eggshell carbon and oxygen stable isotope levels may reflect vegetation and water consumption, which in turn vary with rainfall seasonality and amount in this region.

The researchers found that climatic and environmental variation, reflected in ostrich eggshell stable isotope measurements, faunal records, and shellfish indicators, may not have occurred in phase with Middle Stone Age human technological and cultural innovation at these two sites. While acknowledging that climate and environmental shifts may have influenced human subsistence strategies, the researchers suggest climate change may not have been the driving factor behind cultural and technological innovations in these localities and encourage context-specific evaluation of the role of in driving early human experimentation.

Patrick Roberts notes: "Our results suggest that although climate and environmental changes occurred, they were not coincident with cultural innovations, including personal ornamentation, or the appearance of complex tool-types. This suggests that we have to consider that other factors drove human innovation at this stage in our species' evolution."

Explore further: Stone Age technological and cultural innovation accelerated by climate, research says

More information: Patrick Roberts et al, Climate, Environment and Early Human Innovation: Stable Isotope and Faunal Proxy Evidence from Archaeological Sites (98-59ka) in the Southern Cape, South Africa, PLOS ONE (2016). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0157408

Related Stories

Wet weather helped human culture grow (Update)

May 21, 2013

We moan about the wet weather all too often but it may have been crucial in the development of human culture from about 70,000 years onwards, according to scientists reporting in Nature Communications today.

Africa's Homo sapiens were the first techies

December 5, 2012

The search for the origin of modern human behaviour and technological advancement among our ancestors in southern Africa some 70 000 years ago, has taken a step closer to firmly establishing Africa, and especially South Africa, ...

Recommended for you

Unprecedented study of Picasso's bronzes uncovers new details

February 17, 2018

Musee national Picasso-Paris and the Northwestern University/Art Institute of Chicago Center for Scientific Studies in the Arts (NU-ACCESS) have completed the first major material survey and study of the Musee national Picasso-Paris' ...

Humans will actually react pretty well to news of alien life

February 16, 2018

As humans reach out technologically to see if there are other life forms in the universe, one important question needs to be answered: When we make contact, how are we going to handle it? Will we feel threatened and react ...

Using Twitter to discover how language changes

February 16, 2018

Scientists at Royal Holloway, University of London, have studied more than 200 million Twitter messages to try and unravel the mystery of how language evolves and spreads.

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Paulw789
3 / 5 (2) Jul 07, 2016
In this period, CO2 levels were around 200 ppm and rainfall was much lower than today.

That means that C3 bushes and trees had a very hard time growing. Most of southern Africa was one big desert. It is fairly dry today but in the last ice age at this time, there may have absolutely no trees at all and no nuts and no berries and no roots.

These first homo sapien sapiens in southern Africa had to adapt to survive because they lived in an extreme desert region.

Technology and innovation made them successful and they spread to the whole world soon after as a result.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.