Views from Rhino Cave, Tsodilo Hills, Botswana31 May 2011
Sheila Coulson, Sigrid Staurset and Nick Walker
Coulson and colleagues describe the setting of Rhino Cave, named for a rock painting within it.
It is...easy to understand how the site evaded detection, as it is perched high on the northernmost ridge of Female Hill and can only be approached by scrambling over, or squeezing between, massive boulders. Gaining entry to the cave is only slightly less arduous. On the western side of the ridge there is a raised, narrow, crawl space that ends with a considerable drop into the site. Alternatively, the wider eastern entrance offers two options: a two-meter jump or a slide down a steep boulder face, followed by a scramble over a rock-strewn opening near the present day floor.
I love these kinds of sites where you know that every lithic was brought in by people. That can tell you a lot about how people used the site, and the authors use that to advantage. But Coulson and colleagues do not yet have new dates for the deposits. The old dates appear too recent and are problematic because of their mismatch with other local MSA sites such as White Paintings Shelter and ≠Gi, both between 66,000 and 95,000 years old. The Rhino Cave assemblage may be comparable to these in age. The paper reports that substantial amounts of exotic stone materials including silcrete and chalcedony must come from more than 50 or 100 km away, respectively.
In summary, there is a very distinctive pattern of burning at this site. A group of 26 MSA points and their associated debitage are heat damaged to the point of destruction. However, they have not been exposed to long-term burning of the type that is commonly found when an artifact is discarded into a hearth -- a common feature on any number of Stone Age sites. It is suggested that these MSA points and their associated manufacturing debitage were selectively and intentionally burnt in short-term restricted fires that caused their coloring to change to various reddish hues.This is part of what Coulson and colleagues tentatively call evidence of symbolic or ritual behavior at the site. People climbed up to this out-of-the-way place with colorful stone from far away. The manufacturing debris shows that they made stone points in the cave. And they then left many of those points in the cave, some of them burned and destroyed or abandoned. At a minimum, it's curious. Adding everything together (including the cupules discussed below), it seems clear that the site was not used for purely utilitarian purposes. What that means about ancient social or cognitive systems is not obvious. The article is open access, and full of amazing full-size color photos. I don't know why everyone doesn't publish their sites this way. For example, here's a photo of the site and night, where Coulson and colleagues experimented with flickering light against the carved wall: