Project 1205

Context and controls on modern human behaviour in southern Africa: human-environment interactions in the late Pleistocene (PI: Dr Brian Chase, CNRS, Université Montpellier, France. CO-I: Dr Alex Mackay)

Primary aim of project: To bring together young researchers expert in southern African archaeology and palaeoenvironments to synthesise existing data in order to explore questions concerning the controls on behavioural modernity.

Distinctive forms of complex behaviour arose among modern humans (Homo sapiens) in Africa in the late Pleistocene. However, the appearance of these behaviours in the archaeological record is sporadic before 30,000 years ago, with periods of greater complexity interspersed among extended periods of apparently greater simplicity. While it seems likely that the capacity to behave in complex ways was established more than 100,000 years ago, we presently do not understand the conditions that caused it to appear (and disappear) when it did. Researchers in the region recognise that one of the missing keys to answering these questions is the region's diffuse and depauperate palaeoenvironmental data set. This hampers not only the reconstruction of the Pleistocene environments, including subsistence potential, but also the identification of possible environmental drivers for behavioural change. It is important to recognise, however, that a wide range of pertinent data have been published since the major last synthesis work that combined archaeological and palaeoenvironmental experience (Deacon and Lancaster, 1988); but that much of the information is only imperfectly integrated into models designed to interpret the latest archaeological finds being made in southern Africa (Marean, 2010).

This project will bring together young researchers working on diverse aspects of the archaeology and environment of the late Pleistocene of southern Africa, including: stable isotopes, stone tools, fauna remains, shellfish and plant remains. Using data from archaeological sites and other proxy archives, the project will:

  • build a detailed picture of environmental change in southern Africa through the late Pleistocene based on the most recent evidence available
  • map the various forms of archaeological data (e.g. faunal, technological and symbolic streams) onto this environmental baseline, and,
  • explore the relationships between various data sets and environmental contexts in order to understand causation and correlation in the appearance of behavioural complexity.
The objective of the focus group is to create a multi-stranded, sensitive and robust explanation for the contexts and controls on the appearance of modern human behaviour in southern Africa. Activities will begin with a meeting in Cape Town in May 2012, and be expanded with a workshop at the XIX Biennial South African Society for Quaternary Research (SASQUA) Congress in Namibia in September 2012.