South Africa’s Abstract Thought

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South Africa’s “earliest known evidence of abstract thought”

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The Still Bay culture’s Middle Stone Age artifacts in Bloombos Cave and other sites in South Africa are fueling archaeologist Chris Henshilwood’s belief that the culture “emerged some 78,000 years ago in a startlingly early flourishing of the human mind.”

Grindstones and other tools apparently used to process the iron-rich red rock into a dye called ochre, carefully crafted stone tips, and engravings of cross-hatched patterns on pieces of ochre are in strata dated at 71,000 to 78,000 years ago. Henshilwood says the artifacts demonstrate “symbolic behavior and represent the earliest known evidence of abstract thought” as well as “planning skills and sophistication far earlier than was once believed.” Still Bay’s artifacts abruptly disappear from the cave strata at 71,000 years, and after a gap equated by evolutionary anthropologists with another 7,000 years, a different culture with different kinds of tools appears.

Archaeologists investigating sites like Bloombos Cave note growing evidence for “gradual cultural and technological development, beginning far earlier [than previously thought], during the Middle Stone Age throughout Africa.” They are trying to correlate anthropological findings with data about ancient climate change to determine the role climate played in human evolution. Henshilwood speculates the drop in sea level accompanying “the most recent ice age”—which as we have noted before is the only Ice Age for which there is indisputable evidence—may have made the continental shelf available for Still Bay habitation, eventually leading to its extinction as the sea level returned to normal. He says he’s found no evidence for that yet, however.

Dates for the strata Henshilwood is investigating were obtained using optically stimulated luminescence (OSL). OSL is used to estimate how long quartz grains in the dirt around artifacts have been in the dark.

OSL assesses how much energy is stored in a mineral, assuming its electrons were excited by sunlight exposure in the past and trapped in crystalline imperfections. The energy it emits now when stimulated by laser light is compared to emissions from specimens obtained from the present environment. This ratio is used to estimate how long the mineral has been buried.

Like other dating methods, OSL is based on unverifiable uniformitarian assumptions.

Like other dating methods, OSL is based on unverifiable uniformitarian assumptions. Can we know a sample has truly been in the dark for thousands of years? Can we be sure no other factor such as heat or water exposure has altered the energy stored in it? Can we be certain the mineral’s sensitivity to energy has remained unchanged? It is impossible to know these conditions have been met. Furthermore, the overall method must be calibrated by comparison to other dating methods based on their own unverifiable assumptions.

And those dating methods are also used to calibrate molecular clock calculations used in genomic mapping of populations through the ages. Thus the same assumptions are foundational to conclusions about the age of artifacts and the timing of population movements out of Africa. Even the “out of Africa” paradigm is based on unverifiable assumptions, including the presumption humans evolved from apelike ancestors in the first place.

Biblical history reveals people began dispersing throughout the post-Flood world less than 4,300 years ago. The Still Bay culture’s evidence of abstract thought would be expected from a world where intelligent people were using their skills to survive. As believers in biblical history, we understand the people who dispersed from Babel were not ignorant brutes. Though some groups lost skills and knowledge over the years, we’re not surprised to see the people who lodged at Still Bay—and Subudu Cave and Nubia and Oman—had skills and the ability to plan, think, and record symbols of those thoughts.

Furthermore, after the global Flood, with its associated volcanism, unique condition—such as warm oceans and cool land masses shrouded and shaded by volcanic dust even during the summer—would have provided the meteorological raw materials required for an Ice Age. Meteorological estimates suggest these conditions could have produced the Ice Age within 500 years of the Flood. (Read more at “Where Does the Ice Age Fit?” ) The drop in sea level Henshilwood mentions could indeed have opened new areas for habitation by various groups of people, and he may yet find evidence for it. But whatever evidence he now has and will find later does not prove humans evolved intelligence amazingly early but rather, like the evidence for intelligent ancient people elsewhere in Africa and other places, is consistent with the biblical account of intelligent people dispersing after God interfered with mankind’s rebellion at Babel.

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