National Geographic : 2015 Jan
first artists 39 Christopher Henshilwood unwinds his six- foot-five frame, dusts his hands, and gazes out over the Indian Ocean. He stands at the very tip of Africa, and except for the immense, sea-bat- tered rocks 80 feet below, nothing lies between his boots and Antarctica but 1,500 miles of roll- ing, white-capped sea. “Not a bad day,” he says, in a baritone you might call godlike, if God had a South African accent. True, it has not been a bad day. Henshilwood, of the University of the Witwatersrand, South Af- rica, and the University of Bergen, Norway, and his colleagues have been excavating all morning here at a site known as Klipdrift Shelter, add- ing some stone tools and other new finds to the mounting evidence that modern human beings have inhabited these hills and shallow caves off and on for more than 165,000 years. Yet Hen- shilwood has had better days. Some of his most memorable discoveries have come from Blom- bos Cave, 28 miles east of Klipdrift, near an area where he used to play as a kid. One day in 2000 his team dug out a small block of engraved red ocher a bit smaller than a flip phone. Ocher is common in this part of Africa and has been used for millennia for everything from body paint to a food preservative. This piece, though, was dif- ferent: Roughly 75,000 years in the past, some clever person had carefully etched on it a pattern of overlapping, parallel, triangular markings. No one knows the meaning of those marks, which have since been found on 13 other pieces of ocher. A signature? Calculations? A primeval grocery list? Whatever their elusive purpose, they were 35,000 years older than any other undis- puted evidence of symbolic behavior known at the time. Controversy dogged the discovery at first. Some scientists attacked the little rock as a one-off, nothing but random scratchings or idiosyncratic doodling. “ They said it was National Geographic grantee Christopher Henshilwood and his team dig for clues to the origins of modern human behavior at Klipdrift Shelter, which, like Blombos Cave, has yielded early art. Modern humans roamed the region as far back as 165,000 years ago. Chip Walter’s most recent book is Last Ape Standing. Stephen Alvarez photographed Paris’s underground in the February 2011 issue of National Geographic.