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.
Andy I.R. Herries
Pamela R. Willoughby
In evolutionary terms, a modern human is a member of our own species, Homo sapiens. Fossil skeletal remains assigned to Homo sapiens appear possibly as far back as 300,000 or 200,000 years ago in Africa. The first modern human skeletal remains outside of that continent are found at two sites in modern Israel, the Mugharet es Skhūl and Jebel Qafzeh; these date between 90,000 and 120,000 years ago. But this just represents a short, precocious excursion out of Africa in an unusually pleasant environmental phase. All humans who are not of direct sub-Saharan African ancestry are descended from one or more populations who left Africa around 50,000 years ago and went on to colonize the globe. Surprisingly, they successfully interbred with other kinds of humans outside of Africa, leaving traces of their archaic genomes still present in living people. Modern human behavior, however, implies people with innovative technologies, usually defined by those seen with the earliest Upper Paleolithic people in Eurasia. Some of these innovations also appear at various times in earlier African sites, but the entire Upper Paleolithic package, once known as the Human Revolution, does not. Researchers have had to split the origin of modern biology and anatomy from the beginnings of modern cultural behavior. The first clearly evolves much earlier than the latter. Or does it?
The Early Middle Stone Age (EMSA) from South Africa occurred, broadly, 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 the roots of Homo sapiens reach back to this time. The fossil evidence from South Africa from this period is sparse, but the c. 260,000-year-old Homo helmei partial skull from Florisbad is especially significant in understanding modern human origins. A detailed chronological and regional framework for the EMSA is still in progress, but on the available evidence, the earliest EMSA occupations seem to be centered in the interior and northern regions. Transitional entities such as the Fauresmith and Sangoan and the first EMSA without large cutting tools, from Florisbad, are found in these areas. In the EMSA, biface technology as well as bipolar, discoidal, blade, and Levallois technologies were used to manufacture a wide variety of blanks, some of which were retouched into an array of tool types. Before lithic types such as hand-axes and bifacial points can be used as diagnostic criteria to define, for example, the Fauresmith and Pietersburg, further extended technological analyses are needed to determine their production sequences and context. Prepared core or Levallois technology occur frequently, but not always, in the EMSA. Prepared core technology entails careful planning to shape stone nodules geometrically prior to knapping the preformed blanks. EMSA hunters used Levallois and other pointed flakes as armatures in hafted thrusting spears. Levallois and composite tool technology reflect complex problem solving and hierarchical organizational cognitive capabilities. These competencies are also evident in early pigment processing. The clear footprint of the EMSA on the South African landscape indicates that several human groups populated this region during the Middle Pleistocene. It is highly likely that such groups were linked across Africa and that they collectively developed into Homo sapiens.
Elena A.A. Garcea
The Aterian is a North African late Middle Stone Age techno-complex. It is spread from the Atlantic coast in Morocco to the Middle Nile Valley in Sudan and from the Mediterranean hinterland to the Southern Sahara. Chronologically, it covers the period between c. 145,000 years bp and 29,000 bp, spanning across discontinuous, alternating dry (end of MIS 6 and MIS 4) and humid (MIS 5 and MIS 3) climatic phases. Few, but significant human remains indicate that the makers of the Aterian complex belong to early Homo sapiens. Their osteological features show affinities with the early anatomically modern human record in the Levant (Skhul and Qafzeh), suggesting that Aterian groups may have taken part in the initial dispersals out of Africa by Homo sapiens. Toolkits consist of a variety of implements not only made of stone but also of bone (points, spatulas, knives, and retouchers). They include tools that were lacking in earlier or other North African contemporary contexts, namely bifacial foliates, blades, perforators, burins, endscrapers, and particularly tanged pieces. Overemphasis on tanged tools often obscured the complexity of the Aterian, which instead displays a wide range of cultural and behavioral innovations. New mobility patterns and intra-site organization, as well as early symbolism with the use of Nassariidae shells and ochre, corroborate early fully complex behavior by these populations. Given the broad geographic and chronological extension of the Aterian, differences are evident at both local and regional scales. They suggest the development of a flexible and variable techno-complex mirroring considerable adaptive cognitive and behavioral plasticity derived from nonlinear processes. Such diversified behavioral experiments result from multiple and noncumulative trajectories due to different internal and external stimuli but are still part of a single cultural entity.