The Kalahari is a huge expanse of desert in southern Africa, stretching across Botswana and into the northernmost part of South Africa’s Northern Cape province.

It’s in the Northern Cape that we studied and described a new archaeological site, Ga-Mohana Hill, for research just published in Nature.

Our international team, made up of researchers from South Africa, Canada, the UK, Australia, and Austria, has found evidence for complex symbolic behaviors 105,000 years ago.

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Humans use symbols as a shortcut to communicate important ideas. Identifying the ancient roots of symbolism is limited to what preserves over time. Large calcite crystals from several kilometers away were found in the cave alongside stone tools. Why the crystals were brought there is unknown; they are not modified and do not seem to have a functional purpose. They may have been collected for their aesthetic properties, or included in ritual activities.

Crystals are collected by many people around the world to this day for ritual purposes. Early humans bringing crystals into Ga-Mohana suggests innovation in how people interacted with each other and their environment.

But such ancient innovation didn’t occur in a bubble: there is context to when and where innovation occurs. What brought people there in the first place, at that time, to begin using those tools and collecting those crystals?

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