Artifacts Reveal Water and People Flooded What Is Now Desert in South Africa

New research indicates a South African spiritual site was much more important to the evolution of humans than previously thought.

The archaeological site at a rock shelter in South Africa’s Kalahari Desert. More than 100,000 years ago, people used the so-called Ga-Mohana Hill North Rockshelter for spiritual activities. (Photo by Jayne Wilkins)

(CN) — Kalahari, named for the Tswana word for “great thirst,” was a place to quench one’s thirst more than 100,000 years ago, according to research published in Nature on Wednesday.

With little left behind from inland-dwelling Homo sapiens, archaeologists came to theorize modern modern man evolved on the coasts of Africa. But Middle Stone Age artifacts found at Ga-Mohana Hill rock shelters, 400 miles from contemporary shorelines, in the semi-arid southern Kalahari Desert challenge this notion.

During the Middle Stone Age, researchers say the environment in the region was very different: the coast was only 60 miles from the rock shelter site.

“Archaeological evidence for early Homo sapiens has been largely discovered at coastal sites in South Africa, supporting the idea that our origins were linked to coastal environments,” said Jayne Wilkins, who leads the North of Kuruman Palaeoarchaeology Project, in a statement. “There have been very few well-preserved, datable archaeological sites in the interior of southern Africa that can tell us about Homo sapiens’ origins away from the coast.”

The rock shelters on Ga-Mohana Hill, Wilkins said, “show that overly simplified models for the origins of our species are no longer acceptable. Evidence suggests many regions across the African continent were involved, the Kalahari being just one.”

Analysis of the rocks reveal barrages and cascades where water once flowed as well as tufa pools, a porous type of limestone shaped by water.

Researchers also uncovered flaked stone blades, red ochre with signs of wear, and ostrich eggshells which might have been used as water vessels. Most striking of all were 22 calcite crystals, some of which had been burned.

“Crystals have been linked to spiritual beliefs and ritual for many time periods across the world, including Stone Age southern Africa,” the study authors wrote, describing the crystals as “a small cache of deliberately collected non-utilitarian objects.”

“Ga-Mohana Hill is considered to be a spiritual place today,” the study authors wrote, adding the site “is linked to myths of a great snake by local communities and is used by some community members for prayer and ritual.”

Researchers believe the crystals were brought to the site.

“Our analysis indicates that the crystals were not introduced into the deposits via natural processes, but were deliberately collected objects likely linked to spiritual beliefs and ritual,” Wilkins said.

Researchers estimate early mankind populated the area 105,000 years ago during the late Pleistocene.

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