ARC3PAL Essay: Ochre and the African middle stone age record

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Although there are many interpretations of the African Middle Stone Age (MSA), this essay will review the relevant evidence relating to the significance of ochre use during this period. Contention regarding the MSA focusses on whether people of this
    Why is there ongoing debate about the significance of the African middle stone age record? ARC3PAL  © Caroline Seawright 2014    © Caroline Seawright The African middle stone age record 2 Although there are many interpretations of the African Middle Stone Age (MSA), this essay will review the relevant evidence relating to the significance of ochre use during this period. Contention regarding the MSA focusses on whether people of this period were capable of modern human cognition, especially important as the MSA period predates anatomically modern humans. In an effort to understand when behavioural modernity occurred, archaeologists examining the archaeological MSA record, such as the abundance of ochre artefacts, have resulted in differing conclusions. Ongoing debate emphasises ochre use, signifying functional behaviour and beginnings of advanced thought, or ritual behaviour and fully human cognition. Proponents for both sides concur that ochre use could have been both functional and ritualistic. Whether people of the MSA decorated objects or themselves with special colours, created tanned hides, or composite weapons, they can no longer be seen as archaic due to new evidence of growing human cognition throughout the period. The MSA in Africa, dated ~250-40kya, is a period of change in the archaeological record, the significance of which is debated by archaeologists (Hansen 2011, p. 1; Henshilwood et al. 2002, p. 1278; Jacobs & Roberts 2009). Archaeological evidence, in the form of ochre, shell beads, and composite tools, could be seen as evidence of “human” behaviour. These innovations paralleled a marked Homo sapiens   population increase and significant environmental changes around 80-60kya (Jacobs & Roberts 2009; McBrearty 2007, p. 140). The first appearance of modern humans, Homo sapiens sensu stricto  , was c. 100kya. The appearance of Homo helmei   (260kya), a species with modern human morphological traits, coincides with the beginning of the MSA (Barham & Mitchell 2008, p. 214; Hansen 2011, p. 73). Homo heidelbergensis/rhodesiensis   was also active during the beginning of the MSA until at least 177kya (Barham & Mitchell 2008, p. 217; McBrearty & Brooks 2000, p. 480). Debate between academics regarding the significance of the Middle Stone Age   © Caroline Seawright The African middle stone age record 3 focusses on the srcin of behavioural modernity. Archaeologists wish to pinpoint the transitional period between pre-modern and modern behaviour, and which species achieved this, to better understand uniquely human traits such as advanced cognition in the form of symbolic thought. While ochre dated to the Middle Pleistocene has been found, significant quantities of ochre artefacts have been dated to the MSA (Table 1). Ochre is a pigment containing iron oxide or iron hydroxide, producing a red or yellow colour (Henshilwood, D’Errico & Watts 2009, p. 29; Watts 2002, p. 1). Evidence includes “ochreous powder, ‘crayons’, ochre stained lithics, beads and grindstones, nodules that are smoothed, polished or cut, and unmodified nodules” (Hansen 2011, p. 2). Following careful analyses, academics interpreted findings quite differently (Hansen 2011, pp. 3-4). Debate surrounding MSA innovations includes two major arguments; artefact creation as functional adaptions, or representations of symbolic behaviour. Symbolic thought through conceptualisation and artwork is a key indicator of cognitively advanced modern behaviour (Barham & Mitchell 2008, pp. 255-256; Jacobs & Roberts 2009). The behavioural modernity debate is intensifying around ochre, as it is well-represented and has the potential to demonstrate early behaviours at sites post- and predating 100kya (Hansen 2011, pp. viii, 2; Lombard 2006, p. 57; Watts 2010, p. 392). This essay will examine some ongoing arguments surrounding potential ritual and utilitarian use of ochre, and will cover the most influential arguments on both sides.   © Caroline Seawright The African middle stone age record 4 Site/Cave Country Mass Unit Date Period Reported ochre minerals Wonderwerk Cave (WWK) South Africa Red ochre pieces Major Unit 7 Major Units 3-4 c. 790kya >350-276±29kya Middle Pleistocene Haematite and specularite Twin Rivers Zambia <70kg A Block F Block c 400-266kya c 200-140kya Middle Pleistocene MSA Specularite, Haematite, Limonite, Ferruginous sandstone, Manganese dioxide Duinefontein 2 South Africa - Horizon 3 >290-270kya Middle Pleistocene Haematite GnJh-15, Kapthurin Formation Kenya c. 5kg/>70 items K3 Sediments >285 kya Middle Pleistocene Haematite Border Cave South Africa (KwaZulu-Natal) 111 ochre pieces (8.1 % modified), or 0.33kg (27.7 % modified) 6BS 5WA 5BS >227kya 227±11-174±9kya 166±6 - 147±6kya MSA MSA MSA Haematite and specularite Kalambo Falls Zambia Small pieces of soft ochre, some with rubbing facets and striations Acheulean Lower Acheulean Upper Sangoan 182±16kya 182±10kya 76±10kya MSA MSA MSA Haematite, specularite, limonite, dolerite, kaolin, ferruginous schists Mumbwa Zambia - Unit III-XIII >172±22kya - c. 23kya MSA Haematite, specularite, ferruginous sandstone, yellow sandstone, limonite Pinnacle Point Cave 13B South Africa 1032 potential pieces of ochre (380 pieces/ 1,08kg classified as “pigment”) LC-MSA Lower 164kya MSA Iron oxide, fine sandstone, coarse siltstone, siltstone, shale Blombos Cave (BBC) South Africa c. 9000 pieces Layers CL-CP >143-70kya MSA Haematite, sandstone, shales, siltstone, coarse siltstone Mumba Tanzania - Stratum VIB 132kya MSA Haematite Rose Cottage Cave South Africa 1,57kg/>89 pieces Sequential units: 242-81 inches c. 130-60kya MSA Haematite   © Caroline Seawright The African middle stone age record 5 Site/Cave Country Mass Unit Date Period Reported ochre minerals Mwulu’s Cave South Africa 13 pieces of ochre (53.8% modified), or 0.48kg (77.2% modified) - c. 126-100kya MSA Haematite and Specularite Hollow Rock Shelter South Africa 1123 pieces of ochre (8.4% modified), or 1.34kg (45.5% modified) - c. 126-100kya MSA Haematite and Specularite Klasies River Mouth South Africa 217 pieces of ochre, or 3.81kg - c. 126-60kya MSA Haematite Apollo 11 Namibia 105 pieces of ochre (29.5% modified), or 0.89kg (46.8% modified) - c. 126-60kya MSA - Pomongwe Cave Zimbabwe (Matopo Hills) Lumps and ground pencils of ochre Area 1, Iyrs 22-27 c. 125kya MSA Mostly red haematite Bambata Cave Zimbabwe Balls and fragments of yellow ochre. Pencils, fragments and balls of red and brown ochre Middle and Upper zones c. 125kya MSA Haematite Olieboompoort South Africa 304 pieces of ochre (13.2% modified), or 11.95 kg (18.2% modified) - c. 120-100kya MSA Haematite and Specularite Umhlatuzana South Africa (KwaZulu-Natal) 1721 pieces of ochre (8.5% modified), or 3.44 kg (14.5% modified). Ochre residue on lithics - c. >90kya MSA Haematite, Shale and Specularite Sibudu Cave South Africa c. 5500 pieces, almost 700 of these are worked Squares B5 & B6, layers SIB 1  – SIB 14 c. 77-50kya MSA Haematite, goethite, dolerite, quarts Porc Epic Cave South Africa (Northern Cape) 214 small pebbles and lumps. 34 (15.9%) pieces modified Levels 1-8 <77kya MSA Haematite and specularite Boomplaas Cave South Africa 133 pieces of ochre (18.8% modified), or 1.34 kg (16.9% modified) - c. 70-40kya MSA - Ysterfontein 1 South Africa 29 ochre lumps Upper and Lower Unit c. 60-40kya MSA Red and possible black pigment Klein Kliphuis (KKH) South Africa 919 pieces, one engraved ochre piece D2 >55kya MSA Haematite Table 1: Archaeological evidence for ochre found within Africa, dated to the MSA (Hansen 2011, pp. 21-22, 33-35; Watts 2009, pp. 75-78).  
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