Doug's Darkworld

War, Science, and Philosophy in a Fractured World.

The Makapansgat Pebble, a Mirror Into Our Past?

with 7 comments

Neat looking rock, eh? It’s about 2 by 3 inches (5 by 8 cm,) around half a pound (260 grams.) It would fit nicely in a hand in other words. It’s a stream worn piece of jasperite, a reddish rock that polishes up nicely. The markings on it are completely natural, the result of bouncing around in a stream bed. The resemblance to a human face is obvious, in fact there are three faces on it depending on how it is oriented. It’s not too hard to imagine that someone might have seen it laying in a creek bed, been intrigued, and carried it home to show around or even just because the person who found it thought it was cool looking. I’ve certainly carried home the odd looking rock in my time, as I’m pretty sure many or most people have.

So, a rock that has chance resemblance to a human face, what’s the big deal? Well, this particular rock was found in a cave, many miles from the creek bed where it was created. There’s only one way this rock got into that cave, someone had to carry it there. And this is where it gets interesting. This particular rock, known as the Makapansgat pebble or the pebble of many faces, was carried into that cave some 2.5 to 2.9 million years ago. This makes the Makapansgat pebble one the oldest known manuports in existence, an object moved from its natural context by human agency but otherwise unmodified.

My astute readers at this point are thinking, “Wait, there weren’t any humans around that long ago, so humans couldn’t have moved it.” Absolutely correct. The pebble was found in a cave that was inhabited by Australopithecus africanus, a gracile bipedal hominid that may have been an ancestor of the human race. So not only is this rock a candidate for the first known object moved by “humans,” it may be the first known example of a human ancestor exhibiting symbolic thought or an aesthetic sense. Yes, when that ape-like hominid fished this stone out of a creek, and stared at it in his or her hand and wondered at its resemblance to a face, this was the very first glimmering of what it meant to be human.

To me this is just amazing. Looking at the rock and imagining what it must have meant to the, well, ape-like person who found it. And knowing that every human on Earth might be a descendant of the individual who first gazed at this rock is pretty wild. I don’t think we can even imagine what they were thinking, and it’s a pretty safe bet they couldn’t imagine that millions of years later the funny rock they found would end up in a  museum half the world away to be contemplated by their great great great etc grandchildren. Still, we are connected in a way because then and now we can gaze at this rock and see a face, like an image captured in a  mirror for millions of years.

Granted, this is all pretty speculative. And the pebble might have been dropped there just a million years ago by a Homo erectus or another hominid, in which case it wouldn’t be quite as amazing. It’s just one of those quirky little things that make at least some of us shaved chimps think about how we got here. Especially since I don’t really want to think about where we’re going right now. Yes dear readers, I am so sick and dismayed by so many current events as we slide into the radioactive zombie apocalypse that I can’t bring myself to write about them now. So in the near future I am going to post about weird old things. Lots of fun to be had there, especially since I’m getting to be a weird old thing myself.

Have a great weekend everyone.

(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. It’s not being used for profit, and it’s central to illustrating the post. An image of Australopithecus africanus can be found here, don’t be scared, she’s smiling. I hope.)







This i the Makapansgatpebble



Written by unitedcats

April 9, 2011 at 11:11 am

7 Responses

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  1. Doug,

    I know where you’re coming from? I’m 54 years old and for the first 80% of my life so far, everything was always FUTURE, FITURE, FUTURE! Now I find myself trying to understand ancient Mediterranean culture. I’m not sure why that is, bit I am thinking about it.

    Carried along by history


    Douglas Macary

    April 9, 2011 at 4:22 pm

  2. It would be interesting to have seen the rock in context ie a photo of it and its surroundings before it was removed. It could very well have indicated early man’s “awareness” of s higher being.

    Terry Poole

    April 9, 2011 at 11:27 pm

    • Well, it as found in the 20s by a teacher, and wasn’t described for another 50 years. So I don’t think any photos or such were taken of it in situ so to speak. It’s provenance doesn’t seem to be in doubt, mostly because it’s not any sort of game changing discovery I suspect. IE that an A. africanus might be capable of recognizing a face shaped rock is curious but not revolutionary.

      I don’t really see what you mean by awareness of a higher being, I would say it might indicates the first glimmering that we realized we were more than just animals. Maybe that’s the same thing.



      April 9, 2011 at 11:59 pm

  3. re: ‘spiritual awareness of a higher being’. The ability to reflect, to separate ourselves from the immediate surroundings to create such as “art” is one of the precursors of a ‘spiritual intelligence’ (thoughts of a higher power.) The various cave paintings found the world over, are a result of “sapien” man’s conquest over his animal nature.

    2-3 million years ago. I know what my history books told me. I remember my Anthropology Professor talking about “early man,” and how that creature is more ape than human. I got to see an Australopithicus Africansus skull. But at the end of the day, I’m just not sure I buy that. True, I’ll accept that homo sapiens never used a computer, but in a number of ways, I think that prototype human was alot smarter, and more capable than we moderns. In point of fact, I’ve seen the molds and plasts of human-looking feet walking right next to some pretty wild-looking dinosaur prints, aged over a million years, I’m told.


    April 11, 2011 at 3:49 pm

  4. […] my “strange old things” theme, here we have the Mask of la Roche-Cotard. Unlike our previous rock, this rock has been shaped by human (well, Neanderthal) hands. It’s a piece of flint about 4 […]

  5. […] Doug’s Darkworld. 2013. The Makapansgat Pebble, a Mirror Into Our Past?. [online] Available at: [Accessed: 20 Nov 2013]. 2. io9. The story behind the world’s oldest museum, built by a […]

  6. Can anyone tell me where the Makapansgat kept?


    May 5, 2015 at 1:11 pm

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