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The red ochre rock pictured above is engraved with geometric patterns. Recovered by Christopher Henshilwood and his team of archaeologists at Blombos Cave, it is approximately 75,000-years-old and suggests that early Homo sapiens were able to think abstractly far earlier than once believed possible. The carvings hint at the development of written, symbolic language.

Image courtesy of Chris Henshilwood
and Francesco d'Errico


Christopher Stuart Henshilwood is a research professor and South African Research Chair in the Origins of Modern Human Behaviour at the Institute for Human Evolution at the University of the Witwatersrand. He is also professor of African prehistory at the Institute for Archaeology, History, Culture, and Religion at the University of Bergen. Dr. Henshilwood directs the Blombos Cave Project, a major archaeological research initiative at the southern tip of Africa that is contributing significantly to the international debate on the origins of ‘modern’ human behavior. He led the expedition team at Blombos that discovered forty-one perforated shell beads dating back 75,000 years; he previously found two pieces of engraved ochre decorated with geometric patterns that date from the same period. In his view, these finds signify an early development of complex, syntactical language. Dr. Henshilwood has directed excavations at a number of other Stone Age sites in South Africa, and in conjunction with the universities of Bergen, Oslo, and Tromsoe as well as Arizona State University, he organizes and directs annual three-month field programs at De Hoop Nature Reserve in the southern Cape for archaeology students from around the world. He is currently preparing to start new excavations there at two Middle Stone Age sites. A graduate of the University of Cape Town, Dr. Henshilwood earned a B.A. with distinction in archaeology and a B.A. honors degree with distinction. He took his Ph.D. in southern African archaeology at Cambridge University in 1995. He held several post-doctoral research fellowships at Cape Town and was an adjunct associate professor of anthropology at Stony Brook University before assuming his current positions. As a result of his contributions to the French program, “Origine de l’homme, du langage et des langues,” which was based in Bordeaux, Dr. Henshilwood was awarded the Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Palmes Académiques. In addition to publishing numerous articles in scientific journals, he has lectured widely in Europe, America, Asia, and southern Africa, been involved in numerous television and radio programs, given many public lectures, and written extensively for general audiences. His book, Holocene Prehistory of the Southern Cape, South Africa: Excavations at Blombos Cave and Blombosfontein Nature, was published in 2008 in the Cambridge Monographs in African Archaeology series.

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