An archaeological discovery made in Africa looks set to change our understanding of when humans began conducting rituals. Previous digs had indicated our first rituals were carried out 40,000 years ago in Europe, but an area in north-western Botswana known as Ngamiland has provided evidence that Homo sapiens were performing advanced rituals 70,000 years ago.
The new discovery was made by Sheila Coulson, from the University of Oslo, while she was studying the origins of Ngamiland’s San people. The site itself is located in a group of small peaks within the Kalahari Desert known as the Tsodilo Hills. The location is famous for having the largest concentration of rock paintings in the world and is still a sacred place for the San, who call them the “Mountains of the Gods” and the “Rock that Whispers”.
Evidence of ritualistic behavior was found in a small cave on the northern side of the hills, where a stone formation resembling a python is located. The python is one of the San’s most important animals. According to their creation myth, mankind descended from the python and the ancient, arid streambeds around the hills are said to have been created by the python as it circled the hills in its ceaseless search for water.
The many indentations in the rock led Coulson to wonder what the cave had been used for and how long people had been going there. With these questions in mind, she decided to dig a test pit directly in front of the python stone. Incredibly, in the course of the excavation, she found more than 13,000 artifacts. All of the objects were spearheads and articles that could be connected with ritual use, as well as tools used in carving the stone. Intriguingly, the stones that the spearheads were made from are not from the Tsodilo region, and appear to have been transported from hundreds of kilometers away. Additionally, some of the spearheads appear to have been burnt at the site.
“This would appear to be a very special place. They did not burn the spearheads by chance. They brought them from hundreds of kilometers away and intentionally burned them. It has to represent a ritual,” said Coulson. “Only the red spearheads were burned. It was a ritual destruction of artifacts. There was no sign of normal habitation. Our find means that humans were more organized and had the capacity for abstract thinking at a much earlier point in history than we have previously assumed. All of the indications suggest that Tsodilo has been known to mankind for almost 100,000 years as a very special place in the pre-historic landscape.”
The cave also contains what Coulson says is a secret chamber, located behind the python stone. Some areas around the entrance to this small chamber were worn smooth, indicating that this smaller chamber may have been used by a shaman who oversaw the rituals while remaining hidden. “The shaman… 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 would have been able to control everything,” she explained.