This summer, inside a cave in remote hills in the Kalahari Desert of Botswana, archaeologists discovered evidence of organised ritual activity dating to 70,000 years ago. Their findings are set to change our perceptions of human development since previously it was generally thought that human intelligence had not evolved the capacity to perform group rituals until perhaps 40,000 years ago, when the first such evidence appears in Europe.

The Botswanan evidence comprises a stone carving resembling, so the team believes, a snake 2m high and 6m long. ‘You could see the mouth and eyes of the snake. The play of sunlight over the indentations gave them the appearance of snake skin. At night, the firelight gave one the feeling that the snake was actually moving’ said Associate Professor Sheila Coulson, from the University of Oslo, who along with Dr. Nick Walker has been conducting research in northwest Botswana for 8 years as members of the University of Botswana/Tromso Collaborative Programme for San Research. The extraordinary find comes from a small cave on the northern side of the isolated (World Heritage Site) Tsodilo Hills that are famed for having the largest concentration of rock paintings in the world. The cave itself is so secluded and access so difficult that it was unknown to archaeologists until the 1990s. Upon the stone, the team found 300-400 human-made indentations. Much of the rock’s surface was extensively eroded indicating much time had passed since the marks had been made, while others had clearly been made more recently. However, to clinch the dating the archaeologists dug a test pit directly in front of the python stone. At the bottom of the pit they found over 13,000 artefacts some of which are highly diagnostic and therefore could be dated by association to another Botswanan site which has been well-dated to over 70,000 years old. But was this really a ritual site? The artefacts suggest it was. Thus, among the objects 115 spearheads were found, all unusual in character. Each is well-crafted but much more colourful than other spearheads from the same time and area, and were made from stone that must have been brought from hundreds of kilometres away. Moreover, some spearheads had been burned. ‘There is no functional explanation for the burning. This feature, in addition with other factors, combine to lead us to conclude this represents a ritual destruction of these artefacts,’ said Coulson.

In addition to the artefacts that appear to have had a ritual use, there are grinding stones that have been used in carving the stone panel – indeed, within the test-pit the archaeologists also found a small section that had fallen from the ‘python’ potentially during working.

The mystery thickened with the discovery of a secret chamber behind the python stone. Thus, certain areas of the entrance to this small chamber were worn smooth suggesting that many people had passed through it over the years. Coulson links this evidence to sources written about the Kalahari San. ‘The shaman, who is a very important person in San culture, could have kept himself hidden in that secret chamber. He would have had a good view of the inside of the cave while remaining hidden himself. When he spoke from his hiding place, it could have seemed as if the voice came from the snake itself.’ The shaman could also have ‘disappeared’ from the chamber by crawling out onto the hillside through a small shaft. Moreover, Coulson notes that the python is one of the Kalahari San people’s most important animals. According to their creation myth, humans descended from the python and the ancient, arid streambeds around the hills are said to have been created by a huge snake as it circled the hills in its ceaseless search for water.

Coulson additionally links the choice of painting within the cave to living San. Thus while large cave and wall paintings are numerous throughout the Tsodilo Hills, there are only two small paintings of animals in this cave: an elephant and a giraffe. These images were rendered exactly where water runs down the wall. Sheila Coulson thinks that an explanation for this might come from San mythology. For in one San story, the python falls into a body of water and cannot get out by itself. The python is pulled from the water by a giraffe. The elephant, with its long trunk, is often used as a metaphor for the python. ‘In the cave, we find only the San people’s three most important animals: the python, the elephant, and the giraffe. That is unusual. This would appear to be a very special place. They did not burn the spearheads by chance. They brought them from hundreds of kilometres away and intentionally burned them. So many pieces of the puzzle fit together here. The only feasible interpretation at present is that it is a ritual location.’ said Coulson. Is this interpretation a step too far? Can such a long cultural connection with living people from a given place really be traced? For example many major world religions draw on the snake as part of their creation myth (Adam and Eve in the case of the Old Testament). And in any case, some may venture, was the stone really supposed to represent a snake? The beauty – and difficulty – with prehistory is that everything is open to interpretation. No doubt Coulson’s San connection will undergo some heated debate.

Whatever the case, the team’s find indicates that 70,000 years ago humans were potentially more organised and had the capacity for abstract thinking at a much earlier point in history than we have previously assumed. ‘Tsodilo has a very special, and very ancient, place in the prehistoric landscape.’ concluded Coulson.


This article is an extract from the full article published in World Archaeology Issue 22. Click here to subscribe

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