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Alice Godden does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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This has been archived and is no longer updated. Transposable elements TEsalso known as "jumping genes " or transposons, are sequences of DNA that move or jump from one location in the genome to another. Maize geneticist Barbara McClintock discovered TEs in the s, and for decades thereafter, most scientists dismissed transposons as useless or "junk" DNA.

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Why anybody collects useless junk is a good question. It costs money or at least time and effort; it clutters up our space and its benefit is dubious I have more cat stamps than you do, I win life? Now, archaeologists report an inexplicable collection of apparently useless items dating toyears ago, in the heart of the Kalahari Desert.

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Specifically, Jayne Wilkins of Brisbane University and colleagues report in Nature that early humans living kilometers inland in the Kalahariyears ago were evincing complex behavior earlier than had been thought, and inland, not on the coast. The archaeologists found objects such as calcite crystals at the site, the Ga-Mohana Hill North Rockshelter, which had no obvious utilitarian purpose yet must have been deliberately collected and brought to the site.

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The nearest source they could identify was a hill two-and-a-half kilometers away. Also, the crystals were unworked, were too soft to use as stone tools, and were convenient to carry, being just 8 to 32 millimeters long — i. Ergo, they seem to have been useless.

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The team also found ostrich eggshell fragments in the rock shelter, which may be the sorry remains of containers for water and were also likely brought to the site, the archaeologists suggest. Why is the inland discovery of early complex behavior surprising? There is a theory, which is going out of fashion, that Homo sapiens developed complex behaviors including collecting useless junk in coastal environments.

There is also a theory that hominins exited Africa via the coasts.

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Secondly, archaeologists have found an abundance of evidence that early humans ate seashells by the seashore, which has been taken as evidence of advanced behavior on the coasts. Yet seafood appreciation was not a uniquely sapiens thing.

Neanderthals in Italy were diving for clamsa study claimed earlier this year.

Also, our line has been present in South Africa all along, long before sapiens emerged. Regarding those pretty but non-utile crystals found in the Kalahari rock shelter, they may be unique for their age in the annals of South African archaeology so far but evidence from Israel shows that much earlier hominins had an eye for beauty and may also have had a covetous streak, and not just on the coast.

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InIsraeli archaeologists reported on the discovery of useless junk in Qesem Cave fromyears ago. The Qesem stones seem to have had no utility other than to delight the eye and consternate the proto-Joneses. The archaeologists think they had been collected by prehistoric hominins for their aesthetic value.

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That study suggests that the Homo line developed behavioral complexities, from recycling to collecting eye-catching but useless junk, earlier than assumed. Separate work by Prof. Ran Barkai and colleagues on hominins in Qesem Cave, and several other papers from elsewhere, address recycling stone tools in the Lower Paleolithic.

Hominins took stone tools made millennia earlier, some of which had become gorgeously patinated glossed with mineral coatings and reworked them into new stone tools that retained their beauty. Apropos earlier than assumed, not only were anatomically modern humans around in Africa at leastyears ago; remains of early Homo sapiens were found in Israel and Greece dating toyears ago.

Anyway, early exiters from Africa apparently went extinct; and the ancestors of all non-Africans left for Eurasia about 60, uselessjunk new 50, years ago, which is the time of the Upper Paleolithic. The earliest cave painting known to date is a picture of a pig in Indonesia, dating to about 45, years ago.

That is certainly symbolism run riot. Israeli archaeologists are therefore not surprised by the South African discovery that early humans were collecting non-utile items kilometers from the coast, as well as possibly using containers for water the eggshells someyears ago. As we have shown, early humans were doing that elsewhere and earlier, and not on the beach.

In his opinion, says Prof. Examples include an engraved eagle bone found at Nesher Ramle which dates to aboutyears ago. In addition, obviously hominins and humans could have used seemingly non-utilitarian things for all kinds of reasons, Barkai notes. So, the crystal collection in the rock shelter and pretty stones elsewhere could have had some sort use in the uselessjunk new of a symbolic ificance that we could not, hundreds of thousands of years after the event, hope to recognize.

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Credit: Jayne Wilkins. Archaeological excavations at Ga-Mohana Hill North Rockshelter where early evidence for complex Homo sapiens behaviors was recovered.

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Calcite crystal illustration Credit: Rob Lavinsky, iRocks. Credit: Jayne Wilkins, Jayne.