Studying the behavioural origins of Homo sapiens in southern Africa between 120 000 – 50 000 years ago: Norway/South Africa Co-operative Research

Christopher Henshilwood


  1. Centre for Early Sapiens Behaviour (SapienCE), University of Bergen, Norway
  2. Evolutionary Studies Institute, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa

SapienCE is a dynamic Centre of Excellence, based at the University of Bergen, Norway that will be funded by the Research Council of Norway for the next decade. It has strong research and funding links with the University of the Witwatersrand and the National Research Foundation in South Africa hence adding value to North/South collaborations. It draws on longstanding research in the southern Cape, South Africa and has recently expanded to develop and apply innovative interdisciplinary approaches to a series of well-articulated fundamental research questions relating to the behavioural evolution of early Homo sapiens after 100 000 years.

The primary objectives of the centre will address: When, why and how did humans first become behaviourally modern? Secondary, linked objectives address whether social cohesion was enhanced by symbolic material culture or vice-versa and did it lead to innovation? What cognitive skills had to be in place in order for other skills to develop? How adaptable were humans to environmental change and did climate impacts act as drivers for technological innovation and subsistence adaptations? Can we determine the genomic relationship of these early H. sapiens to extant human populations? Our inter-disciplinary team will integrate high-resolution records of early human cultural, social, technological and subsistence behaviours with innovative geo-archaeological, climate and cognitive data models and will draw in its strong networks in South Africa, Norway and Europe This holistic approach will provide ground-breaking insight into the diverse aspects of what it means to be human.


Christopher Henshilwood is interested in the development of complex technology, social systems, subsistence, environment, syntactic language, and material culture associated with early Homo sapiens, especially those groups who evolved in southern Africa between 100,000–50,000 years ago. He has concentrated on finding archaeological sites that were occupied by H. sapiens during the Later- and Middle Stone Age and has excavated 20 of these sites in southern Africa. He has authored or co-authored more than 85 peer reviewed, wide-ranging papers on the origins of language and symbolism, the effects of climatic variation on human demographics, and on the theory of human behavioural evolution and published two books.

Henshilwood currently leads research involving more than forty foremost scientists in diverse fields in Europe, Africa, the UK, and USA. He is a Distinguished Professor and holds a 15 year SARChI Research Chair in Origins of Human Behaviour (2008 – 2022) at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, and is a Professor and Director of a 10 year Centre of Excellence, the Centre for Early Sapiens Behaviour (SapienCE) at the University of Bergen, Norway funded by the Research Council of Norway (2017-2026). A core focus of his projects is to encourage young researchers, especially women and the previously disadvantaged, in Africa and Europe.