Robert G. Bednarik

The Makapansgat jasperite cobble was excavated from the Makapansgat cave level 3 bone breccia which contained also australopithecine remains. This dolomite cave is located in the Makapan valley of Northern Province (formerly Transvaal), South Africa. The cobble bears several striking surface markings giving it the appearance of a head and face. In recent years the view has been mooted that these markings may have been emphasised, or even entirely made, by australopithecines. In April 1997, I travelled to South Africa specifically to examine this object. My detailed microscopic examination, the first undertaken in the 72 years since the cobble's excavation, has shown that the object was entirely shaped by natural processes. It was probably a manuport, carried into the cave by the australopithecines because of its striking visual qualities, the face and the red colour. I attempted to reconstruct its history on the basis of a microscopic examination of its entire surface. This study took into account impact damage, fluvial wear, striations and micro-pitting, as well as microerosion features and materials embedded in tiny recesses.

The reddish-brown cobble was initially formed under conditions of high kinetic energy. Fluvial transport in conditions of moderate kinetic force then obliterated most of the impact damage, resulting in the present shape. Subsequently the object came to rest in a sediment consisting of well-sorted quartz sand, silt-grade sediment, and the occasional pebble to cobble-size grain. This stratum became a facies of silicified conglomerate. During the late Tertiary period, the cobble eroded out of this lithological context, and once again became the subject of fluvial action, this time in a slow-flowing stream. During this phase, nearly all traces of the former sandstone matrix were obliterated from the cobble's various recesses.

It appears that between 2.5 and 2.9 million years ago the cobble was then picked up from where it had come to rest, and carried for at least 32 kilometres (or 4.8 km, according to another source) into the Makapansgat cave. Together with the remains of Australopithecus africanus and other species, it was once again subjected to a sedimentation process, this time resulting in a fossiliferous limestone and dolomite breccia. The cobble was excavated from this deposit by W. I. Eitzman in 1925.

By far the most conspicuous aspects of this object are its menacing 'eyes' and the several other, very prominent markings, all of which underline the iconographic properties of it resembling two faces. Not only are the markings on the cobble far too striking not to have been noticed by the australopithecines, if they did not notice them we would have to explain why they carried this object for a great distance and then left it at their occupation site. The argument against this explanation is that we do not know what the perceptive and cognitive capabilities of australopithecines were. But it is precisely for this reason that we should not presume to know that they were incapable of perceiving a 'face' on this cobble.

If we accept that Australopithecus africanus collected this object, carried it for some distance, and then left it in a cave habitation site, then we have little option but to attribute to this species the faculty of recognising iconographic aspects of a natural shape. This is not an unreasonable proposition, even chimpanzees recognise the resemblance between colour patches on a printed page, and the object they depict for human eyes. Symbolism is based on the association between an object and what it represents, by association, resemblance or convention. The easiest connection to comprehend is by iconographic resemblance, and the Makapansgat find suggests that this first form of symbolism was mastered by a pre-human species.