The origins of the modern cognition and symbolic thinking

Roots in the Middle Stone Age

A public lecture by Lyn Wadley

as part of the Public Lecture Series Rock Art & Symbolic Expression. A Southern Africa – France Dialogue


Thursday 19 July 2018

18.00 for 18.30 | Origins Centre

Origins Centre Museum, Wits University, West Campus, Corner of Yale Road &, Enoch Sontonga Ave, Johannesburg


Lyn Wadley obtained her Masters in Archaeology from the University of Cape Town and her PhD from the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), South Africa. She spent much of her academic career (1982 – 2004) lecturing archaeology in the Archaeology Department at Wits. In 2005, on her official retirement, she was appointed an Honorary Professor based in the Evolutionary Studies Institute at Wits where she specializes in Middle Stone Age cognitive archaeology. She is an A1-rated National Research Foundation (NRF) researcher (awarded 2017) and she was also awarded an A-rating in 2010. In 2014 she won the TW Kambule award sponsored by BHP Billiton and National Science and Technology Foundation/NRF for outstanding research and outputs over five to ten years. In 2014 and 2015 she received certificates from Thomson-Reuters for ‘exceptional impact’ and was placed on the High Citation list for the top 1% of researchers globally. This recognition implies that her work is valued not only by archaeologists, but also by researchers in other disciplines. In 2016 she won the first runner-up award for the 2016 South African Woman in Science.

As part of her research into cognitive archaeology she developed theory and methods for linking ancient human mental abilities and technology. She is considered a leader in this field globally. She was the first archaeologist to demonstrate that some Stone Age technologies can be proxies for complex brain power more than 100,000 years ago. This research developed during a distinguished career that involved long term, large excavations of two important Middle Stone Age archaeological sites — Rose Cottage Cave in the eastern Free State and Sibudu Cave in KwaZulu-Natal. In order to answer questions about ancient technology she undertook innovative experimental work. For example, she replicated Stone Age compound adhesives and used chemical and mechanical tests to assess their properties. Drawing on principles from cognitive science she discovered that adhesive-making technology, together with some other Stone Age technologies, requires a suite of complex mental attributes.  Her work is multi-disciplinary, collaborative, and places archaeological interpretation of cognition firmly within the realm of testable science. Her discovery that the attributes of complex cognition (needed by people like ourselves) were present here before they were recognizable elsewhere in the world shows the pivotal role that Africa and her early inhabitants played in the subsequent peopling of continents out of Africa.

Lyn Wadley is a committed educationalist and has paid particular attention to the development of women students. Archaeology is a field in which relatively few students pursue post-graduate degrees in South Africa, however, 17 Masters students and 18 PhD students were awarded their degrees under her supervision and she is presently supervising one PhD student and hosting four post-doctoral fellows. She is involved in a number of outreach programmes for disadvantaged students in Limpopo Province, and for six years she taught evening classes in adult basic literacy.

Some of Lyn Wadley’s papers are in top ranked journals such as Science and Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, USA. She presents international key note addresses and invited lectures at conferences and symposia. She serves on editorial boards of South African and international journals and conducts many peer reviews.  She belongs to professional associations such as the South African Academy of Science, and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of South Africa.