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.
Chapurukha M. Kusimba
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Anthropology. Please check back later for the full article.
How, and in what ways, did socially complex societies emerge in Eastern and Southern Africa? Regional scholarship has shown that elite investment in long-distance trade, investment in extractive technologies, monopolization of wealth-creating resources, and warfare may have played key roles in the emergence of early states. The debate on the evolution of social complexity has focused on trade versus militarism as key sources of political power for African elites. To what extent were elite and non-elite engagement in local, regional, and trans-continental economic networks crucial to the development of social complexity in Eastern and Southern Africa? Extensive research on the Eastern Coast of Africa (Kenya and Tanzania) and Southern Africa (Zimbabwe, Botswana, and South Africa) has yielded adequate data to enable a discussion on the trajectories of the evolution of social complexity and the state. So far, three crucial factors—trade, investment in extractive technologies, and elite monopolization of wealth-creating resources—stand out as having coalesced to propel the region towards greater interaction and complexity. Major transformations in the form of increases in household size, clear differences in wealth and status, and settlement hierarchies occurred toward the end of the first millennium. Regional scholarship posits that elite control of internal and external trade infrastructure, restricted access to arable land, accumulation of surplus land, manipulation of religious ideology, and exploitation of ecological crises were among the major factors that contributed to the rise of the state. Could these factors have also favored investment and the use of organized violence to gain and monopolize access to fertile grazing lands, water, and mineral resources, and to provide security along the trade routes, including the Zambezi, Savi, Limpopo, Rufiji, Tana, and Webe Shebelle? Scholarship in the 21st century favors the notion that opportunistic use of ideological and ritual power enabled a small elite initially composed of elders, ritual and technical specialists, to control the regional political economy and information flows. The timing of these transformations was continent-wide and dates to the last three centuries of the first millennium. By all measures, the evidence points to wealth accumulation through trade, tribute, investment in agrarianism and pastoralism, and mining.
The Stone Age record is longer and better documented in eastern Africa. Archaeological and fossil evidence derives particularly from sites within the Rift Valley of the region, often with secure radiometric age estimates. Despite a relatively late start and disproportionate focus on earlier periods and open-air sites within the rift, scientific research into the region’s Stone Age record continues to play a central role in our understanding of human evolution.
Putative stone tools and cutmarked bones from two Late Pliocene (3.6–2.58 million years ago or Ma) contexts are exclusive to eastern Africa, as is conclusive evidence for these by 2.5 Ma. The earliest indisputable technological traces appear in the form of simple flakes and core tools as well as surface-modified bones. It is not clear what triggered this invention, or whether there was a more rudimentary precursor to it. Neither is it certain which hominin lineage started this technology, or if it hunted or only scavenged carcasses. Well-provenienced archaeological occurrences predating 2.0 Ma are limited to sites in Ethiopia and Kenya, becoming more common across eastern Africa and beyond only later.
By 1.75 Ma, lithic technologies that included heavy-duty and large cutting tools appeared in Ethiopian and Kenyan localities. Several details about this technological tradition are still inadequately understood, although its appearance in eastern Africa roughly coincides with that of Homo erectus/ergaster. By far the longest-lived Stone Age tradition, hominins with such technologies successfully inhabited high-altitude environments as early as 1.5 Ma, and expanded within and beyond Africaeven earlier. Hunting and use of fire probably started in the earlier part of this technological tradition.
Small-sized and highly diverse tool forms gradually and variably started to replace heavy-duty and large cutting tools beginning c. 300 thousand years ago (ka). Conventional wisdom associates this technological and behavioral shift with the rise of Homo sapiens, although the oldest undisputed representatives of our species continued to use large cutting tools in eastern Africa after 200 ka. In addition to small retouched tools, often on products from prepared cores, significant innovations such as hafting and ranged weaponry emerged during the length of this technological tradition. Increasingly complex sociocultural behaviors, including mortuary practices, mark the later part of this period in eastern Africa. The consolidation of such skills and behaviors, besides ecological/demographic dynamics, may have enabled the ultimately decisive Out-of-Africa dispersal of our species, from eastern Africa, 50–80 ka.
Even smaller and more diverse stone tool forms and other sociocultural innovations evolved in many areas of eastern Africa by 50 ka. Miniaturization and diversification allowed for the adoption of more complex technologies, including intentional blunting and microlithization. Some of these were used as parts of sophisticated composite implements, such as the bow and arrow. Complex behaviors involving personal ornamentation, symbolism, and rituals that resembled the lifeways of ethnographically known hunter-gatherer populations were similarly adopted. These dynamics eventually led to the development of new technological and socioeconomic systems marked by the inception of agriculture and attendant lifeways.
Jessica C. Thompson
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Anthropology. Please check back later for the full article.
Faunal analysis (or zooarchaeology) in African archaeology is the identification, analysis, and interpretation of the remains of animal bones recovered from archaeological sites in Africa. Faunal analysis is a core approach in investigations of the African past. Its methods and theoretical underpinnings derive from archaeology, paleontology, and geochemistry, and they extend across all faunal categories. Many of the major issues in African faunal analysis concern large-bodied mammalian taxa, but the approach encompasses analysis of fish, shellfish, birds, reptiles, and indeed, all animal remains found in association with archaeological sites.
The diversity of research encompassed within faunal analysis is further expanded in Africa, where the earliest reported archaeological site (dating to 3.3 million years ago [Ma]) is far older than the earliest widely accepted archaeological site outside of Africa (at 1.8 Ma). The extra time depth affords the African archaeological record an especially wide arena of research questions that are answerable using faunal data. These range from investigations of the very origins of human diet, to analysis of the historical use of animals in trade, exchange, and social status.
At the earliest end of the time spectrum, researchers seek to understand the origins of human ancestral interactions with other animals in their ecosystem. Humans and some human ancestors are the only primates to consume animals of the same or larger body size than themselves, and this change in diet facilitated a number of other key changes in human biological evolution, such as increased brain and body size around 1.8 Ma. Dietary change may also have been instrumental in driving technological change, as hunting became more important in our lineage. Our ancestors moved into a more carnivorous niche and came into greater competition with other predators, fundamentally shifting the way they interacted with other organisms in their ancestral environments.
Faunal analysis in African archaeology has been especially important in the development of taphonomic method and theory. Taphonomy is the study of what happens to an organism’s remains after death and includes processes that can severely impact what parts survive and ultimately become part of the fossil record. Common taphonomic processes include human butchery, carnivore consumption and scattering of the remains, burial and decomposition, and post-depositional movement or alteration through the actions of wind, water, and micro-organisms. In the first part of the 20th century, faunal analysis mainly focused on the identification of species that are found in archaeological assemblages. Taphonomic research, starting mainly in the 1960s, sparked an ongoing tradition of studying site formation processes through faunal analysis, with a particular focus on sites in the Rift Valley and in the southern African Cradle of Humankind, dating between 1.8 Ma and 500 thousand years ago (ka). These methods and insights have since transferred to other contexts outside of Africa, where they have become an essential part of the zooarchaeological toolkit.
Africa is also home to the earliest sites produced by members of our own species, Homo sapiens. Faunal analysis has been deployed extensively as a way to understand two key aspects of sites dating between ~500 and 50 ka—what environments were like at the time of early modern human evolution, when our species first achieved the ecological dominance it has today. Modern hunter-gatherers deploy a number of complex technologies and social behaviors in their daily foraging and hunting tasks, and faunal analysis is useful for understanding when these behaviors first emerged. Similarly, it is useful for understanding how later hunters and gatherers dealt with the changing abundance of resources that came with major environmental shifts such as the Last Glacial Maximum ~18 ka, or the end of the Ice Ages ~10.5 ka.
The African continent experienced a major change in human subsistence and land use patterns over the last 10,000 years, with the rise and expansion of food production. However, unlike in most other parts of the world, African food production began with pastoralism. Faunal analysis has played a pivotal role in debates about its origins and spread, mainly based on the morphology of animal bones. Food production, including use of domesticated livestock, spread into the southern tip of South Africa by ~1,300 years ago, accompanying a massive reconfiguration of human populations known as the Bantu expansion. New advances in ancient DNA and collagen fingerprinting are beginning to make a strong contribution to the archaeology of later African time periods, where research questions range from the rise and spread of exchange networks to the ethnicity and diet of different groups of people during historical time periods.
Fire is one of the oldest technologies of humankind; indeed, the earliest signs of fire appeared almost two million years ago. Traces of early fire use include charcoal, baked sediments, and burnt bone, but the archaeological evidence is ambiguous due to exposure to the elements for hundreds of thousands of years. The origin of fire use is, therefore, debated. The first fire users might have been occasional or opportunistic users, harvesting flames and heat-affected food from wildfires. The art of maintaining the fire developed, and eventually, humans learned to make fire at will. Fire technology (pyrotechnology) then became a habitual part of life.
Fire provided warmth and light, which allowed people to continue activities after dark and facilitated moving into colder climates. Cooking food over or in the fire improved digestibility; over time, humans developed a culinary technology based on fire that included the use of cooking pits or earth ovens and preservation techniques such as smoking the food. Fire could even help in the procurement of food—for example, in clearing vegetation for easier hunting, to increase the fertility of the land, and to promote the growth of certain plants or to trap animals. Many materials could be transformed through fire, such as the color of ochre for use in pigments or the knapping properties of rocks for production of stone tools. Pyrotechnology ultimately became integral to other technologies, such as the production of pottery and iron tools.
Fire use also has a social component. Initially, fires for cooking and light provided a natural meeting point for people to conduct different activities, thus facilitating communication and the formation of strong social relationships. The social organization of a campsite can sometimes be interpreted from the artifact types found around a fire or in how different fires were placed. For example, access to household fires was likely restricted to certain family members, whereas communal fires allowed access for all group members. There would have been conventions governing the activities that were allowed by a household fire or a communal fire and the placement of different fire types. Furthermore, the social uses of fire included ritual and ceremonial uses, such as cleansing rituals or cremation. The fire use of a prehistoric group can, consequently, reveal information on aspects such as subsistence, social organization, and technology.
In archaeology, heat treatment is the intentional transformation of stone (normally sedimentary silica rocks) using fire to produce materials with improved fracture properties. It has been documented on all continents, from the African Middle Stone Age until sub-recent times. It was an important part of the Mediterranean Neolithic, and it sporadically appeared in the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic of Asia and Europe. It may have been part of the knowledge of people first colonizing North and South America, and it played an important role for tool making in Australian Prehistory. In all these contexts, heat treatment was normally used to improve the quality of stone raw materials for tool knapping—its association with pressure flaking has been highlighted—but a few examples also document the quest for making tools with improved qualities (shaper cutting edges) and intentional segmentation of large blocks of raw material to produce smaller, more usable modules (fire-fracturing). Two categories of silica rocks were most often heat-treated throughout prehistory: relatively fine-grained marine chert or flint, and more coarse-grained continental silcrete. The finding of stone heat treatment in archaeological contexts opens up several research questions on its role for tool making, its cognitive and social implications, or the investment it required. There are important avenues for research—for example: Why did people heat-treat stone? What happens to stones when heated? How can heating be recognized? By what technical means were stones heated? What cost did heat treatment represent for its instigators? Answering these questions will shed light on archaeologically relevant processes like innovation, re-invention, convergence, or the advent of complexity. The methods needed to produce the answers, however, often stem from other fields like physics, chemistry, mineralogy, or material sciences.
Marlize Lombard and Katharine Kyriacou
The term hunter-gatherer refers to a range of human subsistence patterns and socioeconomies since the Middle Pleistocene, some of which are still practiced in rare pockets across the globe. Hunter-gatherer research is centered on ethnohistorical records of the lifeways, economies, and interpersonal relationships of groups who gather field/wild foods and hunt for meat. Information collected in this way is cautiously applied to the Stone Age/Palaeolithic archaeological records to inform on, or build hypotheses about, past human behaviors. Late Pleistocene (that is, the Tarantian stage of the Pleistocene after about 126,000 years ago) hunter-gatherers possessed the behavioral, technological, and cognitive wherewithal to populate the globe. Hunter-gatherer groups are often relatively egalitarian regarding power and gender relationships. But, as is the case for all mammals, only females become pregnant and bear offspring. This biological reality has socioeconomic and behavioral implications when it comes to food supply. Whereas we share the principles of the mammalian reproductive process, humans have evolved to occupy a unique cognitive-behavioral niche in which we outsmart competition in the quest for survival on any given landscape.
Since early on in our history, the women of our species gave birth to relatively big-brained offspring with considerable cognitive potential, measured against that of other animals. Key to this development is the consumption of specific foods that contain brain-selective nutrients such as omega-6 and omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and trace elements, including iron, iodine, copper, selenium, and zinc. Such nutrients are as important for us as they are for modern and prehistoric hunter-gatherers. Ethnohistorical and nutritional evidence shows that edible plants and small animals, most often gathered by women, represent an abundant and accessible source of “brain foods.” This is in contrast to the “Man the Hunter” hypothesis wherein big-game hunting and meat-eating are seen as prime movers in the development of biological and behavioral traits that distinguish humans from other primates.
The Middle Stone Age (MSA) is a period of African prehistory characterized by the production of stone points and blades using prepared core reduction techniques. The MSA follows the Earlier Stone Age and precedes the Later Stone Age. The MSA is generally regarded as having started by at least 300 thousand years ago, and lasting to roughly 40 to 20 thousand years ago. Identifying the chronological limits for the MSA is challenging because some aspects of Middle Stone Age technology are found in assemblages outside this time range that also have Earlier or Later Stone Age-type tools.
The earlier part of the MSA is associated with Homo heidelbergensis (alternatively known as archaic Homo sapiens, or Homo rhodesiensis). The later part of the MSA, post-200-thousand-years, ago is associated with Homo sapiens. Identifying the processes underlying the evolution of Homo sapiens during the MSA is a major objective of ongoing research, but very few fossil remains have been recovered so far.
Across the African continent and through time, the MSA exhibited a high degree of variability in the types of and ways that stone tools were manufactured and used. Archaeologists have used this variability to define several techno-complexes and industries within the MSA that include the Aterian, Howiesons Poort, Still Bay, and Lupemban. Variation in point styles, presumably hafted to wooden handles or projectiles in many cases, is a hallmark of the regional diversification that originates in the MSA. This kind of variability, which is temporally and spatially restricted, differs in degree from the preceding Earlier Stone Age.
The MSA is significant from an evolutionary perspective because it is associated with the anatomical origins of Homo sapiens, as well as several significant changes in human behavior. Populations in the MSA practiced a foraging economy, were proficient hunters, and began efficiently utilizing aquatic resources such as shellfish and freshwater fish for the first time. Other significant changes included the elaboration of and increased reliance on symbolic resources, complex technologies, and social learning. For example, the first known externally stored symbols in the form of cross-hatched incised pigments date to 100 thousand years ago. In contexts of similar age, shell beads for making jewelry have been recovered from Morocco and South Africa. The earliest evidence for complex projectiles dates to at least 74 thousand years ago. The meaning, utility, and persistence of symbols and complex technologies depend on social learning and confer advantages in contexts that involve long-distance, complex social networks. While many of these earliest finds linked to behavioral modernity have been geographically restricted, the combined suite of genetic, fossil, and archaeological evidence may better support a pan-African origin for Homo sapiens over the course of the MSA.
Africa hosts some of the oldest mines (for extracting ochre used in personal adornment) in the world, but the mines that relate to the transformation of rocks to metal occur much later than those found in Eurasia. Throughout the world, the processes of identifying and winning ores from parent rock to transform them into metals and ultimately into usable objects is indeed considered a novelty. African ethno-archeological research suggests that the realization that certain rocks contained sufficient quantities for heat-mediated reduction into metals, as well as the appreciation of the different properties of targeted metals, have never been a difficult issue for the local Africans. However, archeometallurgists are still rationalizing how this novelty began without an apprenticeship phase, especially south of the Egyptian pyramids.
Indigenous sub-Saharan African metallurgy is laden with symbolism. This particular aspect led the whole craft to be derided by Western science as magical and therefore unworthy of proper scientific study. This prejudicial thinking has since been discredited by sound research, but the ripple effects still linger, and archeometallurgical research is still generally underfunded when compared to other elements of anthropological inquiry. Nonetheless, the limited research conducted to date firmly highlights the direction of pre-industrial mining and metallurgical research in this region.
In a pattern unknown in Eurasia, where copper and bronze preceded iron production in a very gradual process, sub-Saharan African metallurgy was ushered in by the simultaneous advent of iron and copper in parts of East, Central, and West Africa, before this metallurgy was introduced to the southern sub-continent. Gold, tin, and cuprous alloys (mostly bronze and brass) were then worked after centuries of ongoing iron and copper metallurgy. As the last block to take up metallurgy, southern Africa is often uncritically assumed not to have had innovative aptitude, but the historiography of mining and metallurgy of sub-Saharan Africa constantly evokes prejudicial thinking about African incapacity, or counter-discourse in the continent’s defense.
A more careful reading of sub-Saharan metallurgy places this craft on par with the equivalent from Eurasia. Considering that the African continent is the cradle of humankind, this is not surprising. Fortunately, as products of high-temperature processes, archeometallurgical objects (finished products, reactions infrastructure, and waste by-products) retain the transformations they went through in their physical and chemical properties, allowing archeometallurgists glimpses into the technologies produced by past societies. Guided by concepts such as materiality, and in agreement with Maussian thinking, Africanist archeometallurgists consider so-called magic to be just as important as technical control, because there is no chasm between the technological and anthropological factors of artifacts, and all technologies fall within the broader social paradigm of their construction.
Augustin F. C. Holl
The “Three Age System” designed in the middle of the 19th century framed the general pattern of universal technological evolution. It all started with the use of stone tools in the very long “Stone Age.” The much shorter “Bronze Age” followed, to be capped by the even shorter “Iron Age.” This evolutionary taxonomy was crafted in Scandinavia, based on evidence from Denmark, and Europe by extension. Patterns of global long-term technological evolution recorded in Africa are at variance with this Stone-Bronze-Iron Age sequence; there is no Bronze Age yet.
The advent of copper and iron metallurgy is one of the most fascinating debates taking place in African archaeology at the beginning of the 21st century. The debate on the origins of African metallurgies has a long history with multiple implications. It is anchored on 19th-century evolutionism and touches on the patterns and pace of technological evolution worldwide. It has also impacted the history of discourses on human progress. As such, it has strong sociopolitical implications. It was used to support the assumption of “African backwardness,” an assumption according to which all important material and institutional inventions and innovations took place elsewhere—in the Near East precisely—and spread from there to Africa through demic or stimulus diffusion.
Does such a scheme capture global human technological history or is it a specific case of local areal development? That is the core of the current debate on the origins of African metallurgy.
A speculative phase, without any input of field data, took place in the 1950s–1960s. It was represented by the interesting exchanges between R. Mauny and H. Lhote. The former was a proponent of metallurgy diffusion and the latter argued for local inventions. For Mauny, metallurgy is such a complex process, requiring sophisticated mastery of elaborate pyrotechnology, that its independent invention anywhere else is totally ruled out. For Lhote, the diversity of African metallurgical practices and traditions is an indication of its local roots. Despite this debate, the dominant view asserted that iron metallurgy was invented in the Anatolian Hittite Empire in the middle of the 2nd millennium (1600–1500)
Sustained archaeological research was carried out in different parts of the continent from the early 1980s on. Evidence of copper and iron metallurgies was documented in different parts of the continent, in West, Central, and East Africa. Early copper metallurgies were recorded in the Akjoujt region of Mauritania and the Eghazzer basin in Niger. Surprisingly early iron smelting installations were found in the Eghazzer basin (Niger), the middle Senegal valley (Senegal), the Mouhoun Bend (Burkina Faso), the Nsukka region and Taruga (Nigeria), the Great Lakes region in East Africa, the Djohong (Cameroons), and the Ndio (Central African Republic) areas. It is, however, the discoveries from the northern margins of the equatorial rainforest in North-Central Africa, in the northeastern part of the Adamawa Plateau, that radically falsify the “iron technology diffusion” hypothesis. Iron production activities are documented to have taken place as early as 3000–2500
The Sibudan is a technocomplex within the cultural stratigraphy of the southern African Middle Stone Age (MSA), first formulated in 2012. The term was introduced as a working concept to organize the spatio-temporal variability in material culture among the archaeological record following the Howiesons Poort during Marine Isotope Stage 3 (MIS 3; ~59–24 ka). In contrast to the more widely used name “post-Howiesons Poort” (“post-HP”)—an umbrella term resting primarily upon temporal aspects—the Sibudan possesses a formal definition based on characteristic elements of its lithic technology. The site of Sibudu, located in the eastern part of southern Africa (KwaZulu-Natal), serves as type locality since it has yielded a rich and high-resolution record of modern human occupations during MIS 3.
The Sibudan type sequence at Sibudu, dated to ~58 ka and encompassing twenty-three layers, features both characteristic traits and diachronic variability. The consistent techno-typological elements include predominantly local raw material procurement, concomitant use of multiple core reduction methods (Levallois, discoid, platform, and bipolar), manufacture of flake and blade assemblages, as well as soft stone hammer percussion for blades. Temporal variability exists in the proportions and morphologies of tools and unifacial points in particular—including Tongati, Ndwedwe, and asymmetric convergent tools—the presence of bifacial points, as well as the frequency of blank types and different core reduction methods.
Comparative studies since 2014 suggest a spatio-temporal extension of the Sibudan in the eastern part of southern Africa during early MIS 3 (~58–50 ka), with marked differences to assemblages of similar ages along the southern coast and Western Cape. The concept is thus not a direct substitute or congruent with the “post-HP” and “Sibudu technocomplex.” On a more interpretive level, the Sibudan has featured in discussions on the trajectory of cultural evolution among early modern humans, the scale and mechanisms of behavioral change during the MSA, and theoretical debate on the relevance of technocomplexes.