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date: 23 April 2019

The Early Middle Stone Age in South Africa

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Anthropology. Please check back later for the full article.

The Early Middle Stone Age (EMSA) is encompassed, in broad terms, by the time period between 300,000 and 130,000 years ago. This is a crucial phase in the history of Homo sapiens, as genetic and fossil evidence increasingly indicate that some of the roots of humanity may be traced to this time. The development of modern human anatomy was an extended process that involved a gradual enlargement of the brain and a change in the shape of the brain case toward its current globular form. By 300,000 years ago brains had already reached their relatively large size, but changes in the shape of the brain case evolved more gradually. The fossil evidence from South Africa from this time period is sparse, but the 260,000-year-old Homo helmei partial skull from Florisbad is especially significant in understanding modern human origins. Although the development of an extensive and detailed chronological and regional framework is still in progress, it seems that most of the earlier phases of the Middle Stone Age played out against the backdrop of the South Africa interior. This area contained many water-rich areas supporting highly productive ecosystems of open grassland and wetlands from as early as 400,000 years ago, supporting Florisian fauna. The earliest Middle Stone Age sites occur in the interior and include sites such as Haaskraal, Florisbad, Wonderwerk Cave, Cave of Hearths, Bushman Rock Shelter, and Border Cave. Lithic assemblages from a number of these sites have been described as being part of the early Pietersburg technocomplex that is characterized by a preference for fine-grained raw material such as hornfels, to produce long blades and elongated unifacial and bifacial points. In these and other early Middle Stone Age assemblages, prepared core technology was already firmly established. This technology entailed careful and extensive planning to design stone nodules in the appropriate way to knap pre-formed blanks such as blades, points, and flakes to specific parameters. Such pieces were hafted on to handles to hunt and process large bovids and other fauna. The extensive cognitive operations involved in producing EMSA lithic artifacts and hafted projectile weapons, are also evident in the pigment processing and reflect evolutionary amplification in procedural and working memory capabilities.