Doctoral Dissertation Improvement: The role of ochre in the development of modern human behavior: A case study from South Africa

Project: Research project

Project Details


Doctoral Dissertation Improvement: The role of ochre in the development of modern human behavior: A case study from South Africa Doctoral Dissertation Improvement: The role of ochre in the development of modern human behavior: A case study from South Africa The presence of ochre in Middle Stone Age (MSA, ~250-40kya) sites in southern Africa is often proposed as evidence for symbolism and early modern human behavior. However, there is significant debate about the uses of ochre in the past and whether symbolism is the most appropriate explanation for its presence in these sites. With a few exceptions (Watts 1998;Henshilwood et al. 2009), the record has gone largely unstudied. This project will test competing models for ochre use in the MSA, with a focus on symbolism and use in hafting. A series of related research questions will be addressed: Within MSA sites at Pinnacle Point (PP), South Africa, what activities involving ochre were likely taking place? Was ochre used as a pigment for symbolic activities or was it used for more utilitarian activities? Where is the ochre being collected? Are there distinct color preferences being procured or are materials being heat treated to achieve desired redness? Several aspects of the ochre record will be studied to test these questions. The work will first provide a detailed description of the archaeological material at two sites at Pinnacle Point near Mossel Bay, South Africa. Second, this study will identify preserved evidence of use wear on archaeological ochre fragments through comparison with experimentally modified ochre. Third, characterization and sourcing analysis will identify and match geological sources to archaeological material. This will provide an understanding of exploitation patterns for ochre in this area. Among ethnographic hunter-gatherers, ochre exploitation is a highly symbolic activity and varies considerably from the exploitation patterns of other raw materials. These same analyses will also be used to identify any evidence of ochre heat treatment. Lastly, this dissertation will directly test the use of ochre as a hafting agent. The intellectual merits of this work include the application of a unique combination of research approaches to identify early symbolic human behavior. The few previous studies of ochre and the development of modernity have focused on only one of the aspects discussed here. Taken together these new analyses will provide more conclusive answers to the proposed research questions. The PP site complex adds further merit to the project as an ideal case study. The research area has a well developed excavation and research infrastructure in place for the South African Coast Paleoclimate, Paleoenvironment, Paleoecology, and Paleoanthropology (SACP4) project. Previous and current excavations have yielded adequate ochre assemblages for study that are available to the Co-PI. Further, the archaeological ochre at these sites is well dated and may be among the earliest modified ochre in the world (Marean et al. 2007). Also, Ian Watts, an ochre expert in southern Africa, is affiliated with the project and will be available to the Co-PI for guidance. Lastly, insights gained from this research will be incorporated with work on other artifact types in the future to achieve a broader understanding of the development of modern behavior in this time period. The broader impacts of this study include a contribution to one of the most prominent debates in paleoanthropology, that of modern human origins. This study will also impact the field of archaeology by filling a gap in knowledge about the MSA and improving methods of ochre analysis in this time period. Also, as was laid out in the Report of the NSTC (National Science and Technology Council Subcommittee on Social 2010), origins research is crucial for understanding the evolution of the human brain and is argued to be a key research endeavor for NSF funding. Further, identifying the origins of symbolic behavior has profound implications for understanding modern human cognition (Andreasen 2006;Gazzaniga 2008). This work will further provide the Co-PI with interdisciplinary training, and outcomes will be shared with the anthr
Effective start/end date8/1/107/31/12


  • National Science Foundation (NSF): $19,962.00


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