NEW FOSSIL DISPLAY AT MAROPENG PROVIDES INSIGHT INTO WHAT MAKES US HUMAN
A new fossil display, What makes us human: The significance of the Sibudu cave shelter, opens at Maropeng on 2 March. The display shows how early Homo sapiens lived, and explains what fossil remains can tell us about the development of modern behaviour in our early human ancestors.
“The exhibition will take you on a journey into the mindset of humans who predate recorded history and will also highlight other aspects of evolution, such as how the thinking process of humankind has evolved. We need to look at these fossils and ask, do these artefacts reflect inhabitants who were behaviourally modern human beings? At what stage did this occur,” says Lindsay Marshall, Maropeng Curator.
Archaeologists have uncovered new evidence, at the Sibudu rock shelter in KwaZulu-Natal, for what they call “plant bedding”, which suggests that early humans were using plants and placing them on the ground to sleep on – and possibly to live on and work on too.
“There will also be displays of other significant finds from the Sibudu rock shelter, because the site has produced several artefacts of interest, such as the oldest bone arrow and the oldest needle. These fossils range from 77,000 years to 38,000 years ago,” Marshall explains.
Fossilised grass stems and leaves, some dating back 77,000 years (during the Middle Stone Age), have been found at the Sibudu site. Scientists can also tell that these humans re-laid the bedding several times, indicating that they occupied the same land for some time. They would also frequently burn the bedding, possibly to get rid of unwelcome insects and other visitors.
“Perhaps most fascinating of all, analysis of the fossilised leaves shows they had chemical properties that repel mosquitoes. These may have been some of the first humans to discover a way of repelling the pesky bloodsuckers,” adds Marshall.
These studies were conducted through a large collaborative effort involving many local and international scientists. The aim of the studies was to reconstruct the world of these ancient humans and to hypothesise about their behaviour.
Marshall says that, although the fossilised grass stems and leaves on display are old, humans are older. “Our species, Homo sapiens, emerged much earlier, roughly 200,000 years ago,” she says.
Although the first humans were biologically identical to modern humans, scientists are interested in how human behaviour changed and evolved from the time of these first humans to today.
“This is why there is so much interest surrounding finds such as these,” says Marshall. “They are pieces to the puzzle of our species and its history.”
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