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date: 25 March 2023

Chronology of the Hominin Sites of Southern Africalocked

Chronology of the Hominin Sites of Southern Africalocked

  • Andy I.R. HerriesAndy I.R. HerriesLa Trobe University


The identification of the Taung Child Australopithecus africanus type specimen as an early human fossil (hominin) by Raymond Dart in 1924, followed by key discoveries at sites like Sterkfontein, Swartkrans, and Makapansgat in the 1930s and ’40s, was key to understanding that humans first arose in Africa, not Europe or Asia. Later discoveries in eastern Africa have shown that the earliest potential hominins (e.g., Orrorin tugenensis) date back to at least 6 million years ago. In contrast, the oldest fossils hominins in South Africa are those of Australopithecus from the sites of Taung and Makapansgat and are dated to between about 3.0 and about 2.6 million years ago (Ma); only one specimen, from Sterkfontein, potentially dates to earlier than this sometime between 3.7 and 2.2 Ma. However, the majority of early hominin fossils in southern Africa come from 2.8- to 1.8-million-year-old palaeocave remnants in the Malmani dolomite of the Gauteng province. These sites have a rich record of hominin species, including Australopithecus africanus, Australopithecus sediba, Paranthropus robustus, and Homo erectus. Most of these species, except for Homo erectus, are endemic to South Africa. However, the DNH 134 specimen from Drimolen Main Quarry does represents the oldest fossil of Homo erectus anywhere in the world. This specimen occurs at a time around 2 Ma when there is a turnover in hominin species with the extinction of Australopithecus and the first occurrence of Homo, Paranthropus, and an archaeological record of Oldowan and bone tools. Acheulian technology occurs from at least 1.4 Ma and is associated with specimens simply attributed to early Homo. The oldest hominin fossil outside the northern Malmani dolomite karst is dated to between 1.1 and 1.0 Ma, at Cornelia-Uitzoek in the Free State, and also represents the last specimen defined as early Homo. Paranthropus is also last seen around 1 million years ago, when the first specimen attributed to Homo rhodesiensis may also have occurred at Elandsfontein in the Western Cape. There is a dearth of hominin fossils from the terminal Early Pleistocene until the late Middle Pleistocene when a high diversity of hominin species occurs between about 340,000 and about 240,000 years ago (c. 340 and c. 240 ka). This includes a late occurring specimen of Homo rhodesiensis from Broken Hill in Zambia, Homo helmei or early modern humans from Florisbad, and Homo naledi from Rising Star. This is also a period (post 435 ka) containing both late occurring Acheulian and early Middle Stone Age (MSA) technology, but none of these fossils is directly associated with archaeology. Definitively early modern human fossils are not found until after 180 ka in direct association with MSA technology, and the majority, if not all, of the record occurs during the last 120 ka.


  • Archaeology
  • Biological Anthropology

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