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Article

The stretch of the Nile River upstream from the First Cataract corresponds to the Middle Nile and extends from southern Egypt to the confluence of the White Nile and the Blue Nile in central Sudan. Its water basin is wider than that of the Lower Nile Valley and includes considerable tributaries and groundwater outlets springing in oases, wells, or boreholes, which could support human populations in otherwise uninhabitable arid and semi-arid lands. The Middle Nile Valley and the adjacent western and eastern deserts feature a range of significant sites belonging to the Early Stone Age (ESA), the Middle Stone Age (MSA), and the Later Stone Age (LSA). The earliest hominin occupation goes back to the Oldowan. Sites dating to this period are not numerous but are dispersed in different areas and suggest that some may have been lost due to taphonomic agents. Acheulean techno-complexes attest to a more consistent human presence in northern Sudan, western Sudan, and eastern Sudan. Research along the Red Sea coast and inland has provided strong evidence on green corridors for hominin dispersals connecting East Africa to the eastern desert. A variety of MSA techno-complexes appear in different territories. The most frequent industries have been assigned to the Sangoan, Lupemban, Nubian Complex, Aterian, and Khormusan. Early MSA Sangoan and Lupemban sites concentrate in the main Nile and White Nile areas, whereas Middle MSA Nubian Complex sites also appear in the eastern desert. Almost unknown in the Egyptian Nile Valley, the Aterian is well attested to in the Middle Nile Valley, as well as in the western desert. Finally, the Late MSA Khormusan and the LSA are mostly restricted to northern Sudan, with the exception of an LSA evidence in eastern Sudan, at Khashm el-Girba. The renowned LSA cemetery at Jebel Sahaba with signs of interpersonal violence is located in northern Sudan. Thanks to their favorable intermediary position, the Middle Nile Valley and the adjacent western and eastern areas likely contributed to both the northern and the southern routes of out-of-Africa hominin dispersals. The northern route that led East African hominins into Southwest Asia and onward almost inevitably traversed Sudan. At the same time, Sudanese technological traditions also appear across the Red Sea, in the Arabian Peninsula and seemingly spread via the southern route.

Article

The Southern African Stone Age covers the longest period in human history, that is, the last three million years of human evolution and adaptation in a region south of the 18th parallel south. The region includes the countries of Botswana, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland, and Zimbabwe, with a northern border marked by the Kunene River between Angola and Namibia, the Cuando River on the borders of Angola, Namibia, and Botswana, and the Zambezi River. It is divided into three main phases, known as Early, Middle, and Later Stone Age. The Early Stone Age had its beginning about three million years ago with the development of Australopithecus, found in South Africa in the region called the Cradle of Humankind. The earliest stone tools in the region were discovered in the cave of Sterkfontein and are dated to around two million years ago. These first stone tools, which include choppers, polyhedrons, and subspheroids, among other artifacts, are part of an industrial complex known as the Oldowan, which lasted for a few hundred thousand of years. It was followed by the Acheulean, known by its unique large cutting tools, the handaxes, cleavers, and picks, starting about 1.8 million years ago. During this period, species such as Homo habilis and Homo erectus/ergaster walked over southern Africa. The Middle Stone Age, starting about three hundred thousand years ago, seems to be directly associated with the emergence of a new species, Homo sapiens. This phase shows a wide cultural diversity in the region, and in fact across the whole African continent, both in time and space. This is a phase drastically marked by technological and cultural innovations, such as the use of bow and arrow, hafting, bone tools, lithic heat treatment, use of pigments, production of body ornaments such as beads, art in the form of engravings, and, finally, the systematic inclusion of shellfish and plants in the human diet. These innovations, however, were not used all in the same location. This congregation of techniques and innovations took place only during the next phase, the Later Stone Age, which started around thirty-five thousand years ago. It is likely the result of an important demographic change that occurred as a response to climatic oscillations that took place at the world level. Like the Middle Stone Age, the Later Stone Age saw an incredible range of cultural diversity in the large region of southern Africa. Traditionally, it was believed that the main differences between the Middle and Later Stone Ages were based on a dichotomy where, on one side, points and flake industries resulting from prepared cores such as Levallois were present, and on the other, simple cores producing microlithic assemblages, sometimes geometric, together with art, and beads and organic tools were present. Today, however, that simplistic contrast is known to be wrong, and the differences in cultural complexity are more a matter of concentration than innovation. The Later Stone Age hunter-gatherers were finally slowly replaced by farmers and herders and later by Iron Age populations, between twenty-five hundred years ago and the recent historical present.

Article

Alexander F. Blackwood and Jayne Wilkins

The Middle Stone Age (MSA) is a period of African prehistory characterized by the production of flake-based assemblages, often with a focus on stone points and blades using prepared core reduction techniques. The MSA follows the Earlier Stone Age and precedes the Later Stone Age, although the boundaries between these periods are not as sharp as originally defined. The MSA is generally regarded as having started by at least three hundred thousand years ago (ka) and lasted until roughly forty to twenty thousand years ago. Identifying the chronological limits for the MSA is challenging because some aspects of MSA 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 fossils belonging to the Homo sapiens clade (alternatively referred to as Homo heidelbergensis, Homo rhodesiensis, or archaic Homo sapiens). The later part of the MSA post 200 ka is associated with Homo sapiens. Determining the processes underlying the anatomical evolution of Homo sapiens during the MSA is a major aim of ongoing research, however fossil remains are rare. Across the African continent and through time, the MSA exhibits a high degree of variability in the types of stone tools that were manufactured and used. Archaeologists have used this variability to define several technocomplexes and industries within the MSA that include, but are not limited to, the “Aterian,” “Howiesons Poort,” “Still Bay,” and “Lupemban.” Variation in point styles, presumably hafted to wooden handles or in some cases projectiles, is considered a hallmark of the regional diversification that originates in the MSA. This variability, which is temporally and spatially restricted, differs in both degree and kind from the preceding Earlier Stone Age. The MSA is significant from an evolutionary perspective because, in addition to being associated with the anatomical origins of Homo sapiens, this period in time documents several significant changes in human behavior. Populations in the MSA practiced a foraging economy, were proficient hunters, and began efficiently and systematically utilizing aquatic resources such as shellfish and freshwater fish for the first time. Other significant changes include the elaboration of and increased reliance on symbolic resources and complex technologies. For example, the first known externally stored symbols in the form of crosshatched incised pigments date to ~100 ka. 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 ka. The meaning, utility, and persistence of symbols and complex technologies depend on social conventions and confer advantages in contexts that involve long-distance, complex social networks. While many of these earliest finds linked to behavioral modernity have so far been geographically restricted, the combined suite of genetic, fossil, and archaeological evidence may better support a polycentric African origin for Homo sapiens over the course of the MSA.

Article

Paloma de la Peña

The Howiesons Poort is a technological tradition within the Middle Stone Age of southern Africa. This technological tradition shows different characteristics, technical and symbolic (the engraving of ostrich eggshell containers, the appearance of engraved ochre, formal bone tool technology, compound adhesives for hafting and a great variability in hunting techniques), which only developed in an extensive manner much later in other parts of the world. Therefore, the African Middle Stone Age through the material of the Howiesons Poort holds some of the oldest symbolic and complex technologies documented in prehistory. For some researchers, the Howiesons Poort still represents an unusual and ephemeral technological development within the Middle Stone Age, probably related to environmental stress, and as such there are numerous hypotheses for it as an environmental adaptation, whereas for others, on the contrary, it implies that complex cognition, deduced from the elaborated technology and symbolic expressions, was fully developed in the Middle Stone Age.

Article

Nicholas Taylor

The Lupemban is an industry of the Middle Stone Age (MSA) that is found across the Congo Basin and on its plateau margins in central Africa. It takes its name from the site of Lupemba that was discovered in 1944 in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC, then the Belgian Congo). The Lupemban’s distinctive toolkit of elongated lanceolate bifaces, core-axes, points, blades, and other small tools coincides with the equatorial forest belt and is suitable for constructing hafted implements, which has led to speculation it was a special and specific prehistoric adaptation to rainforest foraging. Although poorly dated across most of its geographic range, radiometric dates for the Lupemban at Twin Rivers (Zambia) show it is at least ~265 ka years old, placing it among the oldest known expressions of the regional MSA. As such, the Lupemban bears on 21st-century debates about the evolution of complex cognitive abilities and behaviors that characterize the emergence of Homo sapiens at or before 300 ka bp. In spite of the Lupemban’s potential importance for understanding the evolution of technology, human–environment interactions, and cognition in early Homo sapiens, the industry remains enigmatic and poorly understood. Logistical, ecological, and political challenges continue to impede fieldwork in central Africa. Moreover, at sites including Gombe Point (DRC), severe soil bioturbation by tree roots has caused the vertical displacement of buried artifacts, which corrupts the basic integrity of stratigraphic sequences. This problem is known to be widespread and means that after 100 years of research, central Africa still lacks a refined Stone Age cultural sequence. Consequently, very little is known about spatiotemporal variability within the Lupemban, or its specific environmental or cultural adaptations. At the site of Kalambo Falls (Zambia), the industry is found in secondary but stratified context, which, as of the early 21st century, offers the best glimpse into Lupemban technology and its potential evolutionary significance.

Article

Sibudan  

Manuel Will

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.

Article

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.

Article

Composite, multi-component tool technologies held together by means of a join (or haft) have a well-established record within southern Africa, temporally spanning the region’s Middle Stone Age through the Later Stone Age to historic and ethnographic narratives. The use of hafting adhesives, the glue of composite technologies, is a similarly well-established phenomenon, ensuring that users can create reliable, maintainable tools. The main organic components of these malleable technologies are sourced from plant exudates, including resins, gums, and latexes derived from several plant families, alongside animal fats, waxes, and inorganic minerals. Hafting adhesive finds within southern Africa’s archaeological record broadly fit into three categories: complete or relatively complete hafted implements, trace on inserts, and lumps of material. The frequency and location of these largely organic artefacts are invariably associated with differential preservation and regions where significant archaeological surveys have been conducted since the 1960s. Compositional information of hafting adhesives, however, comes from disparate sources: a handful of archaeometric studies on chemical composition from Middle Stone Age and Later Stone Age contexts as well as historic and ethnographic observations. Ethnographic accounts have provided models in the complexity of adhesive manufacture and ingredient acquisition, while archaeological case studies in chemical composition of adhesives emphasize differences in adhesive production and the use of resources that are wholly absent from the records of the last two centuries. Despite these discrepancies, research demonstrates that these components of composite tools remain high-value commodities in their own right and more than a step in the chaîne opératoire of a composite implement.

Article

The Fauresmith refers to a poorly defined archeological entity that is transitional between the Earlier and Middle Stone Age in southern Africa and that has tentatively also been identified in East Africa. Recent research on sites in the Northern Cape Province of South Africa supports the validity of the Fauresmith while indicating that there is considerable variation in the lithic assemblages. There are significant cultural developments associated with the Fauresmith, including a shift from a stone tool technology focused on large bifacial tools toward flake tools produced using prepared core techniques, the use of stone-tipped spears, and the use of places and objects, including ochre, associated with particular sensory properties. The chronological position of the Fauresmith is the subject of ongoing research but currently appears to be situated between 500,000 and 300,000 years ago. No hominin fossils have yet been recovered from a Fauresmith context. The Fauresmith is best understood within the context global patterns in the hominin and archeological record in the period during which Homo erectus was replaced by an increased diversification of hominins, including modern humans. It is also important to recognize that the Fauresmith raises major questions about the nature of archeological entities and the epistemological validity of these conceptual tools.

Article

Gregor D. Bader, Viola C. Schmid, and Andrew W. Kandel

The African Middle Stone Age (MSA) is the period in human history spanning roughly from 300,000 until 30,000 years ago. Here, we focus on the archaeological record of South Africa, with occasional glimpses at neighboring countries (Eswatini, Lesotho, Namibia). During this time, modern humans evolved in Africa and brought forth a number of key innovations, including art and symbolism, personal ornaments, burial practices, and advanced methods of tool production using different raw materials such as stone, wood, or bone. The MSA is subdivided into several substages based on regional chrono-cultural differences, such as MSA II or Mossel Bay, Still Bay, Howiesons Poort, Sibudan, and the final MSA. Previous research has tended to concentrate on just two of those stages, namely, the Still Bay and Howiesons Poort, as they were considered to be pinnacles of innovation. In the past years, however, assemblages from other periods have gained increasing attention. Some of the major research questions include the nature and timing of both the onset and end of the MSA. The focus on diachronic cultural dynamics not only related to the Still Bay and Howiesons Poort techno-complexes and the increasing awareness of regional diversification during different phases, especially during Marine Isotope Stage 3 (57,000–29,000 years ago), but also to the inherent problems arising from them.

Article

The term “ochre” has many meanings: a colored stone, a pigment, sunscreen, a curiosity item, a mustard hue, or even an object used for ritual. Ochre found at archaeological sites is described as a range of earthy, ferruginous rocks with red–yellow–purple streaks. The use of ochre in the past has proven valuable for interpreting not only cognitive capabilities of its users but also for its potential to shed light on behavioral and social factors. The late Pleistocene, and specifically the Middle Stone Age in southern Africa, is a time of significant behavioral and cognitive advances for Homo sapiens—this coincides with the habitual use of ochre. By looking at the collection and use of ochre in the African Middle Stone Age, placed within a global and temporal context, important behavioral conclusions can be made. Ochre has many potential uses, making interpretations of ochre use in the past complicated. Ethnographic and modern analogies are considered as well as the experimental work that has been produced by numerous researchers. All accounts have deepened our understanding of the many ways that ochre may have been used in the distant past. It is likely that both its color and mineralogical content dictated its use in the past.

Article

Analysis of Late Pleistocene fauna exploitation (~130,000–12,000 years ago) in southern Africa is of global academic relevance. Faunal analyses from southern African sites have led to the development of influential hypotheses on the evolution of modern human hunting methods and subsistence economies. In the 1970s and 1980s, analysis of faunal remains from the Middle Stone Age site Klasies River informed the hypothesis that Middle Stone Age humans were less effective hunters than ethnographically documented hunter-gatherers. This was based on the underrepresentation of dangerous prey species in the bone assemblages. The development of detailed taphonomic research in the 1990s and 2000s demonstrated that the accumulation of faunal assemblages was the result of complex processes involving both human and nonhuman agents. These studies helped establish that Middle Stone Age hunters were as capable as those in ethnographically documented societies. Since then, important progress has been made in the identification of the weapons systems that were used to hunt animals. Analyses of lithic implements indicate bow-and-arrow use in southern Africa going back to at least 65,000 years ago. Animal exploitation strategies do change over time. Hunting strategies probably focused on large antelope during the Middle Pleistocene, and the importance of smaller animals increased This change was likely caused by a shift in prey populations that stemmed from a combination of environmental change and perhaps human population pressure. Late Pleistocene archaeological sites show increasing evidence for intensification; that is, an increase in the amount of food extracted from the environment by more thorough processing of prey, exploitation of new prey types, and development of new exploitation strategies. This pattern is usually linked to animal overexploitation and may be a result of human population expansion or environmental change if decreasing productivity limits the supply of animal prey. Notable examples of this are shellfish middens at coastal sites, the abundance of tortoises, and the presence of large numbers of small mammals that were likely snared instead of pursued.

Article

Aterian  

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.