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date: 06 May 2021

Howiesons Poortfree

  • Paloma de la PeñaPaloma de la PeñaUniversity of the Witwatersrand


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.

What Is the Howiesons Poort?

The Howiesons Poort is a technological tradition within the Middle Stone Age of southern Africa, named after an archaeological site near Grahamstown (Deacon 1995). This technological tradition has received much attention in prehistory research because it shows different characteristics, technical and symbolic, 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 (Wurz 2000; Wadley 2001; Henshilwood and Marean 2003; Henshilwood and Dubreuil 2011; Wadley 2001, 2013, 2015).

Within the Howiesons Poort have been documented, among many other technical and symbolic traits, the engraving of ostrich eggshell containers (Texier et al. 2010, 2013), the appearance of engraved ochre (Mackay and Welz 2008), formal bone tool technology (Cain 2004, 2005, 2006; Backwell et al. 2008; d’Errico et al. 2012), compound adhesives for hafting (Wadley et al. 2009), and a great variability in hunting techniques (including circumstantial evidence of bow and arrow technology and the use of traps and snares; Clark and Plug 2008; Wadley 2010a; Lombard 2007a, 2011; Lombard and Pargeter 2008; Wadley and Mohapi 2008; Lombard and Phillipson 2010; Douze et al. 2018; de la Peña et al. 2018) and microlithic strategies (de la Peña and Wadley 2014a; de la Peña 2015a), which are often associated with complex composite tools and standardization (Deacon 1992; Wurz 2000; Wadley 2001; Lombard et al. 2006) .

The Howiesons Poort is generally accepted as distributed south of the Zambezi River (Deacon 1995; Jacobs et al. 2008), though it must be clarified that most of its identification is related to the current territory of South Africa, south of the Limpopo River (fig. 1). This could be a research bias, as there is an imbalance in prehistoric research in other southern African countries.

Figure 1. Main southern African’s Howiesons Poort sites referenced in the text (orange dots) and eponymous site of Howiesons Poort (red dot).

Created by the author.

The stratigraphic and chronological position of the Howiesons Poort within the Middle Stone Age has been and still is controversial. During a great part of the 20th century, it was believed that it was a transitional technological tradition between the so-called Middle Stone Age and the Later Stone Age. The reason for this was that the Howiesons Poort has many stone tools similar to the ones of the Upper Palaeolithic in Europe made from blades (such as long backed pieces). At that time, the great antiquity of the African Middle Stone Age was still unknown (Thackeray 1992). Therefore, the Howiesons Poort was initially conceived as a later prehistoric expression because of its putative technological complexity, and the typology of the stone tools was incorrectly considered as the same as the ones in Europe. Nonetheless, in the decades of the 1970s and 1980s, the excavations at Klasies River, Peers Cave, Rose Cottage, Umhlatuzana, Border Cave, and Apollo 11 (Singer and Wymer 1982; Wadley and Harper 1989; Kaplan 1990; Beaumont 1978; Wendt 1976), demonstrated that the Howiesons Poort was actually in the middle of the chronostratigraphy of the Middle Stone Age, and by all means was not a late expression of it, and neither a transitional one. This was clear because in all of those sites, after the Howiesons Poort industries, other Middle Stone Age stone tools were found in the stratigraphic sequence.

Currently, there is also a discussion on the chronology of the Howiesons Poort. On the one hand, there are geochronologists who support a short-term chronology. Following optical luminescence sample analyses, the Howiesons Poort technological tradition would have lasted a short period of time of around 5,000 years, approximately between 65 ka and 59 ka. The sites which supported this chronological bracket are Apollo 11, Diepkloof, Klein Kliphuis, Melikane, Ntloana Tsoana, Rose Cottage Cave, Sibudu, and Klasies Cave 1a (Jacobs et al. 2008). On the other hand, following analyses in thermoluminescence from the site of Diepkloof, an extension of the Howiesons Poort to 50,000 years has been proposed (Tribolo et al. 2013). This controversy is yet to be resolved as of 2020, and the uncertainty seems related to the luminescence method and the lack of clarity of the definition of the Howiesons Poort by recent technological analyses.

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 (see “Different Interpretations for This Technological Tradition”). For other researchers, on the contrary, it implies that complex cognition, deduced from the elaborated technology and symbolic expressions, was fully developed in the Middle Stone Age, and that the sophistication expressed itself through multiple action sequences required for processing material culture (Henshilwood 2011; Henshilwood and Dubreuil 2011; Wadley 2013). Indeed, the Howiesons Poort has been one of the main archaeological entities enabling a claim that “modern human” behavior was present in Africa before Eurasia, and that behavior in the Middle Stone Age was not that different from behavior at the beginning of the Later Stone Age or the so-called Upper Palaeolithic Revolution (McBrearty and Brooks 2000; Henshilwood and Marean 2003; Mellars 2006; Shea 2009).

The Technologies of the Howiesons Poort

The hallmark for the archaeological identification of the Howiesons Poort is a particular type of stone tool: large backed pieces. Certainly the presence of large backed blades continues to be the main criterion for attributing assemblages to this techno-tradition (de la Peña 2015b). The most well-known types are the backed and truncated pieces such as trapezoids and segments (crescents), often considered larger than those found in Later Stone Age assemblages (Thackeray 1992). However, other types of backed pieces were also manufactured during this technological tradition (Harper 1994; Wurz 2000; Porraz et al. 2013; de la Peña and Wadley 2014b; de la Peña 2015b; Douze et al. 2018; fig. 2). Traditionally, Howiesons Poort backed pieces have been defined as manufactured from big blades. However, at the site of Sibudu Cave, the production of quartz-backed pieces, together with bipolar production, demonstrates a strategy of microlithism not constrained by the size of the nodules of rock chosen for knapping (de la Peña and Wadley 2014a).

Wurz (1999) and Wadley (2010a, 2010b) have highlighted that complex cognition may be demonstrated by aspects not strictly related to symbolism. In this vein, technology in the Howiesons Poort covers an essential part of the debate of so-called modern human behavior.

Figure 2. Different backed pieces from the Howiesons Poort of Sibudu Cave. All of them were made on dolerite: 1, 5, 7, and 8 are segments; 2, 3, 4, and 6 are truncations. All scales 1 cm.

Photograph courtesy of Paloma de la Peña.

In the past fifteen years, since the first decade of the 21st century, there has been a notable effort to define the entire technology of the Howiesons Poort (Soriano et al. 2007; Porraz et al. 2013; de la Peña 2015b; Douze et al. 2018, among others). Almost all the analyses agree on the importance of blade and bladelet blank production.

Wurz (2000) proposed that Howiesons Poort blades originated from a recurrent blade production system using a soft hammer. She also proposed that this blade production was the basis for creating the blanks for the backed tools in the Klasies River site.

At the site of Diepkloof, this industry was defined as a regionally specific tradition that, unlike other Howiesons Poort industries, could be subdivided into phases (Early, Intermediate, and Late; Porraz et al. 2013). Moreover, in their study, they propose that there is interstratification of a non-Howiesons Poort lithic technology between the Early and the Intermediate Howiesons Poort, the so-called Middle Stone Age type “Jack,” even though this layer contains large backed pieces which traditionally have been the hallmark for typological recognition of Howiesons Poort assemblages.

At Klipdrift, the conclusion of the technological analysis was that three phases within the “Howiesons Poort complex” could be distinguished. The common trend in these three phases is that the knapping reduction sequence is almost entirely devoted to the production of blades (Henshilwood et al. 2014; Douze et al. 2018).

At Sibudu Cave, new knapping methods were recognized in the Howiesons Poort, such as a well-developed prismatic technology for big blade production (de la Peña 2015b), varieties of core on flakes for bladelet production (de la Peña and Wadley 2014b), and strategies of microlithism for quartz reduction, including an extensive use of prismatic cores and, subsequently, knapping on an anvil (also called bipolar knapping) in order to produce small flakes and bladelets (de la Peña and Wadley 2014a; de la Peña 2015a; fig. 3).

Moreover, recent technological studies at Diepkloof and Sibudu have highlighted bifacial reduction sequences within the Howiesons Poort assemblage (Porraz et al. 2013; de la Peña et al. 2013; fig. 4). At Sibudu, most of these bifacial pieces were made on quartz, and the reduction sequence for these pieces has been described, including probably the use of bone pressure for their final steps of manufacture (de la Peña et al. 2013). This is supported by two bone pressure flakers found in the Howiesons Poort layers at Sibudu (d’Errico et al. 2012). Thus, following Sibudu’s recent technological analyses, the Howiesons Poort techno-tradition includes a great variety of lithic reduction strategies and an emphasis on microlithic techniques, such as the production of small quartz-backed pieces and bladelets and small flakes through bipolar knapping (de la Peña 2015a).

Figure 3. Howiesons Poort bipolar cores in crystal and vein quartz from layer Grey Sand (Sibudu Cave). All scales 1 cm.

Photograph courtesy of Paloma de la Peña.

Figure 4. Howiesons Poort bifacial pieces from Sibudu Cave. Scale 3 cm.

Photograph courtesy of Paloma de la Peña.

A great number of recent studies have also tried to understand the function of backed pieces. They have been considered as versatile tools regardless of the raw material they are made on because they can be rotated and hafted in different ways to serve as elements of composite tools in tasks such as cutting (Wadley and Binneman 1995; Wadley et al. 2009; Igreja and Porraz 2013) or piercing when used as projectiles (Wadley and Mohapi 2008; Lombard and Pargeter 2008; Lombard 2011; Villa et al. 2010; Villa and Soriano 2010). It has been further suggested that the small quartz segments from Sibudu could have been hafted transversely, and that hunting with bow and arrow may have been practiced (Pargeter 2007; Wadley and Mohapi 2008; Lombard and Phillipson 2010; Lombard 2011; Pargeter et al. 2016). The suggestion that hunting with a bow and arrow occurred in the Howiesons Poort at Sibudu is supported by the discovery of a bone point that could have been used as an arrowhead (Backwell et al. 2008, 2018a). Moreover, it has been demonstrated that small quartz flakes and bladelets (retouched and unretouched) were used as barbs during the Howiesons Poort of Sibudu Cave, probably in composite projectile tools together with backed pieces (de la Peña et al. 2018).

Concerning other technologies and functions besides hunting, at Sibudu another piece of worked bone may correspond to a pin (Cain 2004, 2005, 2006; d’Errico et al. 2012). Smoothers and awls used for working skins come from Howiesons Poort layers, as do wedges, pièces esquillées, and pressure flakers (d’Errico et al. 2012).

The use of ochre is often related to symbolic expression, although this link is not always necessary. Ochre was demonstrated as part of a glue recipe for the hafting of backed tools at Sibudu Cave (Lombard 2007a, 2007b; Wadley et al. 2009; Wadley 2010b).

Ochre is often found in Still Bay and Howiesons Poort layers along the coast of southern Africa. At Klasies River, the layers with the most ochre in the Middle Stone Age sequence are the ones of the Howiesons Poort (Henshilwood 2011).

Another technical strategy associated to the Howiesons Poort is, for example, heat treatment of knappable rocks such as silcrete, recently proposed for the site of Klipdrift (Delagnes et al. 2016).

Subsistence Strategies

Recent faunal analyses have pointed out different hunting strategies during the Howiesons Poort in different southern African biomes. The most recent analyses come from three sites: Sibudu Cave (Clark 2017), Klipdrift Rock Shelter (Reynard et al. 2016; Reynard and Henshilwood 2017), and Diepkloof (Steele and Klein 2013).

The analyses from Sibudu Cave demonstrate that most of the fauna documented in the site was accumulated by humans. The Howiesons Poort inhabitants hunted and consumed a diverse range of prey, with the predominant species inhabiting closed environments. Small bovids, and in particular blue duiker, make up the majority of the animals hunted. Indeed, regarding the mammals acquired, most of them were small (Clark 2017). At Sibudu, birds were also consumed during the Howiesons Poort (Val et al. 2016). The emphasis on small game and the demonstration of bird consumption have been used by some researchers as indirect evidence for the use of remote capture technologies during the Howiesons Poort, such as snares and traps (Clark and Plug 2008; Wadley 2010a; Val et al. 2016). Wadley (2010a) points out that the faunal profiles at Sibudu resemble those captured with snares by modern foragers in the Kalahari.

A comparative analysis of Klipdift’s Howiesons Poort and Blombos Cave’s Still Bay layers demonstrates that during the Howiesons Poort, there was higher resource intensification (defined by these authors as the exploitation of low-ranked prey, the processing of low-utility elements, transport decisions, and occupational intensity). Following that comparative analysis, low-ranked elements were processed more heavily and diet breadth was broader during the Howiesons Poort at Klipdrift (Reynard and Henshilwood 2017).

Symbolic Expressions

In the Howiesons Poort are documented some of the earliest symbolic expressions in the world. At the sites of Diepkloof (Texier et al. 2010, 2013) and Klipdrift (Henshilwood et al. 2014), a technological engraving tradition of ostrich eggshell containers has been documented. At Diepkloof, these decorated pieces appeared in eighteen different stratigraphic layers, which is evidence of a technological tradition that lasted several thousand years. Moreover, different patterns for these ostrich eggshell containers have been described, notably: a hatched band motif, a parallel to subparallel line motif, an intersecting line motif, and a cross-hatched motif. Ostrich eggshell engraved containers are documented in later prehistoric contexts such as in the Later Stone Age and in the contact period in southern Africa. The main hypothesis proposed for the Diepkloof ostrich egg remains is that they were used to store water. The complex patterns represented at Diepkloof and Klipdrift, and their change through time, may have two outstanding implications: the presence of long-term graphic traditions and the use of symbolism in society.

At the sites of Klasies River layer 20, Cave 1A (Singer and Wymer 1982), at Sibudu Cave (KwaZulu Natal, South Africa) layer GR (~60 ka; Backwell et al. 2008; d’Errico et al. 2012), and at Apollo 11 (Namibia; Henshilwood 2011), notched bone pieces have been documented. There is a possibility that these notched pieces had a symbolic meaning in that they were systems of notation, although a strong argument has not been made in this regard so far.

At Klein Kliphuis, one piece of engraved ochre (refitted from two fragments) was found in a mixed assemblage of Howiesons Poort and post-Howiesons Poort artifacts during a lithic analysis (Mackay and Welz 2008). The pattern documented is a cross-hatched line. The researchers who found it interpreted this piece as an early “design.” Independent of the final meaning or function of this piece, the discovery at Klein Kliphuis points out two important aspects for the Middle Stone Age (Mackay and Welz 2008): that nonfigurative designs are present in the Middle Stone Age, and that this was the case for a long time period, following the oldest discovery at Blombos Cave of another pieces of engraved ochre (Henshilwood et al. 2002). At Diepkloof Rock Shelter, incised pieces of ochre have been found (Rigaud et al. 2006), but no further description or discussion is reported.

At Klasies River, after a technological analysis of the backed artifacts, Wurz (2000) concluded that an argument can be made for the imposition of style. Owing to the fact that style can be related to communication because of the utilization of symbols, Wurz inferred symbolic behavior through this technology (following the action-constitutive theory of Byers 1994).

Human Remains and the First Ornamented Burial

At the site of Border Cave, a four- to six-month-old infant (BC3) together with a shell was documented in a pit during the excavations of Cooke, Malan, and Wells in 1941 (Cooke, Malan, and Wells 1945; fig. 5). This discovery has been interpreted as the oldest example of modern human burial from Africa and the earliest example of a deceased human associated with a personal ornament. The shell in particular has been recently identified as Conus ebraeus (previously it was identified as Conus bairstowi), and it has been proposed that a perforation was made in the thick apex of the shell to enable it to be suspended. The same authors propose that it was collected from the nearby shoreline (d’Errico and Backwell 2016). d’Errico and Backwell (2016) associated this burial to the first Howiesons Poort occupations at the cave, from layer 1RGBS dated 74 ± 4 ka (Grün et al. 2003), indicating that marine gastropods were used as ornaments in the Howiesons Poort.

Figure 5. Conus shell found in the pit with the infant (BC3) burial at Border Cave. Red residues are preserved on all aspects of the body, along the inner lip, and inside the aperture. Part of the shell was removed for dating.

Photograph courtesy of Francesco d’Errico.

Different Interpretations for This Technological Tradition

Singer and Wymer (1982) used population replacement as an explanation for the first appearance of the Howiesons Poort, that is, the makers of “traditional” Middle Stone Age tools were replaced by a new population creating Howiesons Poort tools, and that the original southern African inhabitants returned to their homeland after the demise of the Howiesons Poort. In other words, the Howiesons Poort would be the by-product of a migration.

Mellars (2006) has speculated that the Howiesons Poort could come from other Northern areas in Africa owing to the fact that there are also backed industries in Central and East Africa. However, this has not been proved, neither typo-technologically nor by the chronostratigraphy of the putative associated sequences, and the dates available for the Howiesons Poort in southern Africa are consistently older. Thus, with the evidence at hand this hypothesis is difficult to sustain.

Other hypotheses relate the development of the Howiesons Poort to environmental and demographic pressure. Deacon (1989, 1992) proposed that lifeways implied by material culture associated with the Howiesons Poort could be compared to the San ethnographic record. The environmental stress generated by climatic deterioration at the beginning of the Howiesons Poort stimulated the creation of new social adaptations, and backed pieces would have been a way to mark social identity between groups, with a social interchange system such as the hxaro gift-giving partnership of the Kalahari San, described by Wiessner (1983). For Deacon, this social trend would also have been a sign of “modern behavior.”

Wadley (1987) compared the Howiesons Poort with the Wilton technological tradition of the Later Stone Age, suggesting that both could be the result of similar technological responses to similar demographic, social, and economic conditions. She also pointed out that the Stone Age had fluctuating forms of social relations and the Wilton and Howiesons Poort may represent related, yet different forms.

Wadley (2001) and Henshilwood and Marean (2003) argue subsistence intensification linked to population increase as the main trigger for the incipient features of behavioral modernity.

McCall (2007) and McCall and Thomas (2012) argued that the Howiesons Poort was a technological tradition that emerged as a response to environmental instability during Marine Isotopic Stage 4 and the demographic pressures in southern Africa at this time. This instability put pressure on the human population and, therefore, the impressive technological and symbolic innovations associated with this time period should be understood as related to new patterns of mobility, settlement systems, and foraging strategies. Thus, Howiesons Poort would be a reflection of a pattern of logistical mobility related to large foraging territory and low human population densities.

In a recent technical analysis of the Pinnacle Point 5–6 site, Wilkins et al. (2017) analyzed the relationship between lithic technology strategies and glacial cycles. During Marine Isotopic Stage 4, the researchers identified increased use of quartz, increased evidence for the use of outcrop sources of quartzite and silcrete, earlier stages of reduction in silcrete, flaking efficiency in all raw material types, and changes in tool types and function for silcrete. Following those industrial indicators, they conclude that foragers responded to glacial environmental conditions at Pinnacle Point site 5–6 with “increased population or group sizes, ‘place provisioning’, longer and/or more intense site occupations, and decreased residential mobility.” This evidence from Pinnacle Point does not match with previous hypotheses that interpreted Howiesons Poort people as highly mobile (McCall 2007; McCall and Thomas 2012).

The End of the Howiesons Poort

Arguments for the end of this technological tradition have focused on environmental explanations. Deacon (1989), Ambrose and Lorenz (1990), McCall (2007), and McCall and Thomas (2012), among others, have stressed environmental reasons for the end of the Howiesons Poort. In the same way that the appearance of the Howiesons Poort would have been a response to environmentally harsh conditions, its disappearance would have meant the decline of such environmental pressure.

This argument has been criticized (Jacobs et al. 2008) because the Howiesons Poort is found in many different environmental niches in southern Africa, so it is clearly not an adaptation to one of them. In the case of Sibudu, different environmental proxies (faunal remains and paleomagnetism) indicate that environmental change only came later in the sequence, during Marine Isotopic Stage 3 (Clark and Plug 2008; Herries 2006).

Henshilwood and Marean (2003) highlight how environmental hypotheses around the Howiesons Poort usually “explain away” this particular African technological tradition instead of understanding it as complex behavior.

Dusseldorp (2014), in a recent synthesis about this putative technological transition (between the Howiesons Poort and subsequent different technologies), saw it as the result of changes in both resource availability and mobility strategies.

For the site of Klipdrift, Reynard et al. (2016) consider that the phase that is possibly transitional from Howiesons Poort to post-Howiesons Poort (~60 ka) may coincide with lower population densities than previously recorded in the sequence. In this potentially transitional period, the faunal assemblage is dominated by tortoise and small mammals.

The evidence from Sibudu Cave, comparing different behavioral (lithic technology, ochre processing, micromorphology) and environmental proxies (charcoal, fauna, paleomagnetism) between the Howiesons Poort and the post-Howiesons Poort (layers around 58 ka), points to a change in mobility patterns, reflected in a more simple lithic technology (absence of standardization, fewer trimmed blanks, local raw materials, and increased presence of grindstones; de la Peña and Wadley 2017). The virtual disappearance of backed pieces implies that these highly portable and replaceable pieces were no longer essential and that they could be replaced by other types of stone tools not so well adapted to transport, but easy to make (and then discard) in the Sibudu surroundings. The grindstones found in the post-Howiesons Poort layers imply extractive activities that may have been related to the new pattern of mobility, economic strategies, and social organization (de la Peña and Wadley 2017).

Directions for Future Research

Recently, publications on Howiesons Poort have focused on lithic technology hunting strategies and the potential use of bow and arrow. Other aspects of the technology are still unknown, such as the function of other bone and stone tools. Regarding the technology, there has not been works that test the putative uniform expression of this technological tradition.

On another front, it must be borne in mind that some of the South African biomes offer an extraordinary organic preservation related to paleobotany (e.g., such as in the sequence of Border Cave; Backwell et al. 2018b). Perhaps in the future, new analyses of this type of vegetational remains may offer other aspects of the material culture of this tradition that have been previously unknown.

Finally, a problem of great importance is the chronological delimitation of this technological tradition, which is associated with luminescence methodologies. Also, another aspect that should be explored is the geographical delimitation of the Howiesons Poort, exploring and confirming its development at South Zambezi River and at other countries in southern Africa such as Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Bostwana.


The author is thankful to Lucinda Backwell for kindly reading and correcting this manuscript. The support of the DST/NRF Centre of Excellence in Paleosciences (South Africa) toward this research is hereby acknowledged. This institution has granted the author’s archaeological research since 2013 in several research projects related to the Howiesons Poort of southern Africa, through the mentorship of Lyn Wadley. The author holds the responsibility of what is written in this manuscript entirely.


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