Chapter 4. Middle Stone Age engravings and their significance to the debate on the emergence of symbolic material culture
Archaeological evidence associated with modern cognitive abilities provides important insights into when and where modern human behaviour emerged. Modern human behaviour here means the thoughts and actions spontaneously shaped by minds equivalent to those of <i>Homo sapiens</i> today. Key among these is the use of symbols. Three models for the origins of behavioural modernity are current: (i) a late and rapid appearance at ~ 40–50 ka associated with the European Upper Palaeolithic and the Later Stone Age (LSA) of sub-Saharan Africa, (ii) an earlier and more gradual evolution rooted in the African Middle Stone Age (MSA ~ 300–40 ka), (iii) a discontinuous evolution rooted in both the African Middle Stone Age and the Mousterian of Eurasia. Material evidence for modern behaviour before 40 ka in Africa was, until a few years ago, relatively rare and often regarded as ambiguous compared to evidence from the Upper Palaeolithic or LSA. However, in sub-Saharan Africa archaeological evidence for changes in technology, economy and social organization and the emergence of symbolism in the Middle Stone Age contradicts the first model. Examples of these changes include standardized formal lithic tools, shaped bone implements, innovative subsistence strategies, evidence for personal ornaments and the deliberate engraving of abstract designs on ochre, ostrich eggshell and bone. In this chapter we review the earliest evidence for purposely made engravings from southern Africa and discuss their significance for arguments favouring early advances in human cognition.