Middle Stone Age

The Middle Stone Age (or MSA) was a period of African prehistory between the Early Stone Age and the Later Stone Age. It is generally considered to have begun around 280,000 years ago and ended around 50–25,000 years ago.[1] The beginnings of particular MSA stone tools have their origins as far back as 550–500,000 years ago and as such some researchers consider this to be the beginnings of the MSA.[2] The MSA is often mistakenly understood to be synonymous with the Middle Paleolithic of Europe, especially due to their roughly contemporaneous time span, however, the Middle Paleolithic of Europe represents an entirely different hominin population, Homo neanderthalensis, than the MSA of Africa, which did not have Neanderthal populations. Additionally, current archaeological research in Africa has yielded much evidence to suggest that modern human behavior and cognition was beginning to develop much earlier in Africa during the MSA than it was in Europe during the Middle Paleolithic.[3] The MSA is associated with both anatomically modern humans (Homo sapiens) as well as archaic Homo sapiens, sometimes referred to as Homo helmei. Early physical evidence comes from the Gademotta Formation in Ethiopia, the Kapthurin Formation in Kenya and Kathu Pan in South Africa.[2]

Blombos point
Middle Stone Age tool from Blombos Cave
The Middle Stone Age
Early Stone Age
pre-Still Bay
Howiesons Poort
post-Howiesons Poort
final MSA phases
Later Stone Age

Regional development

There are MSA archaeological sites from across the African continent, conventionally divided into five regions: northern Africa, comprising parts of the modern countries of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya; eastern Africa, stretching roughly from the highlands of Ethiopia to the southern part of Kenya; central Africa, stretching from the borders of Tanzania and Kenya to include Angola; southern Africa, which includes the numerous cave sites of South Africa; and western Africa.[4][5]

In northern and western Africa, the wet-dry cycles of the modern Sahara desert has led to fruitful archaeological sites followed by completely barren soil and vice versa. Preservation in these two regions can vary, yet the sites that have been uncovered document the adaptive nature of early humans to climatically unstable environments.[6]

Eastern Africa represents some of the most reliable dates, due to the use of radiocarbon dating on volcanic ash deposits, as well as some of the earliest MSA sites. Faunal preservation, however, is not spectacular, and standardization in site excavation and lithic classification was, until recently, lacking. Unlike northern Africa, shifts between lithic technologies were not nearly as pronounced, likely due to more favorable climatic conditions that would have allowed for more continuous occupation of sites.[4][5][7] Central Africa reflects similar patterning to eastern Africa, yet more archaeological research of the region is certainly required.

Southern Africa consists of many cave sites, most of which show very punctuated starts and stops in stone tool technology. Research in southern Africa has been continuous and quite standardized, allowing for reliable comparisons between sites in the region. Much of the archaeological evidence for the origins of modern human behavior is traced back to sites in this region, including Blombos Cave, Howiesons Poort, Still Bay, and Pinnacle Point.[4][5]

Transition from Acheulean

Parc national d'Awash-Ethiopie-Rivière (1)
The Awash Valley

The term "Middle Stone Age" (MSA) was proposed to the African Archaeological Congress by Goodwin and Van Riet Lowe in 1929. The use of these terms was officially abandoned in 1965.[8] although the term remains in use in the context of sub-Saharan Africa, beginning with a transitional late Acheulean period known as the Fauresmith industry. The Fauresmith industry is poorly dated, according to Herries (2011) beginning around 511–435 kya. This time, rather than the actual end of the Achaeulean around 130 kya is taken as the beginning of the MSA. The MSA so defined is associated with the gradual replacement of archaic humans by anatomically modern humans.[9]

In a different convention, MSA refers to sites characterized by the use of Levallois methods for flake production, to the exclusion of Acheulean sites with large cleavers or handaxes. Following McBrearty and Tryon (2006), the term "early MSA" (EMSA) refers to sites predating the 126 kya interglacial, and "later MSA" (LMSA) refers to site younger than 126 kya. In this convention, Fauresmith sites of 500 to 300 kya are within the ESA, and the MSA begins after about 280 kya and is largely associated with H. sapiens, the earliest reliably dated MSA site in East Africa being Gademotta in Ethiopia, at 276 kya.[10] The Middle Awash valley of Ethiopia and the Central Rift Valley of Kenya constituted a major center for behavioural innovation.[11] It is likely that the large terrestrial mammal biomass of these regions supported substantial human populations with subsistence and manufacturing patterns similar to those of ethnographically known foragers.

Archaeological evidence from eastern Africa extending from the Rift Valley from Ethiopia to northern Tanzania represents the largest archaeological evidence of the shift from the Late Acheulian to the Middle Stone Age tool technologies. This transition is characterized by stratigraphic layering of Acheulian stone tools, a bifacial handaxe technology, underneath and even contemporaneous with MSA technologies, such as Levallois tools, flakes, flaked tools, pointed flakes, smaller bifaces that are projectile in form, and, on rare occasions, hafted tools.[5][10] Evidence of the gradual displacement of Acheulian by MSA technologies is further supported by this layering and contemporaneous placement, as well as by the earliest appearance of MSA technologies at Gademotta and the latest Acheulian technologies at the Bouri Formation of Ethiopia, dated to 154 to 160 kya. This suggests a possible overlap of 100-150 thousand years.[10]

Late Acheulean artefacts associated with Homo sapiens have been found in South African cave sites. The Cave of Hearths and Montague Cave in South Africa contain evidence of Acheulian technologies, as well as later MSA technologies, however there is no evidence of crossover in this region.[5]

ESA Acheulean sites are well documented across West Africa (except from the most tropical regions) but mostly remain undated. A few late Acheulean sites ("MSA" in the sense of late Acheulean, not Levallois) have been dated. Middle Pleistocene (pre 126 kya) sites are known form the northern Sahelian zones, while Late Pleistocene (post 126 kya) sites are known both from northern and southern West Africa. Unlike elsewhere in Africa, MSA sites appear to persist until very late, down to the Holocene boundary (12 kya), pointing to the possibility of late survival of archaic humans, and late hybridization with H. sapiens in West Africa.[12]

Lithic technology

2009 excavations at the Diepkloof Rock Shelter

Early blades have been documented as far back as 550-500,000 years in the Kapthurin Formation in Kenya and Kathu Pan in South Africa.[2] Backed pieces from the Twin Rivers and Kalambo Falls sites in Zambia, dated at sometime between 300 and 140,000 years, likewise indicate a suite of new behaviors.[2][13] A high level of technical competence is also indicated for the c. 280 ka blades recovered from the Kapthurin Formation, Kenya.[14]

The stone tool technology in use during the Middle Stone Age shows a mosaic of techniques. Beginning approximately 300 kya, the large cutting tools of the Achuelian are gradually displaced by Levallois prepared core technologies, also widely used by Neanderthals during the European Middle Palaeolithic.[15] As the MSA progresses, highly varied technocomplexes become common throughout Africa and include pointed artifacts, blades, retouched flakes, end and side scrapers, grinding stones, and even bone tools.[1][5] However, the use of blades (associated mainly with the Upper Palaeolithic in Europe) is seen at many sites as well.[1] In Africa, blades may have been used during the transition from the Early Stone Age to the Middle Stone Age onwards.[16] Finally, during the later part of the Middle Stone Age, microlithic technologies aimed at producing replaceable components of composite hafted tools are seen from at least 70 ka at sites such as Pinnacle Point and Diepkloof Rock Shelter in South Africa.[17][18]

Artifact technology during the Middle Stone Age shows a pattern of innovation followed by disappearance. This occurs with technology such as the manufacture of shell beads,[19] arrows and hide working tools including needles,[20] and gluing technology.[21] These pieces of evidence provide a counterpoint to the classic "Out of Africa" scenario in which increasing complexity accumulated during the Middle Stone Age. Instead, it has been argued that such technological innovations "appear, disappear and re-appear in a way that best fits a scenario in which historical contingencies and environmental rather than cognitive changes are seen as main drivers".[20]

Hominin evolution and migration

Homo erectus
Homo erectus skull, Museum of Natural History, Ann Arbor

There have been two migration events out of Africa, the first was the expansion of H. erectus into Eurasia approximately 1.9 to 1.7 million years ago, and the second, by H. sapiens began during the MSA by 80 – 50 ka MSA out of Africa to Asia, Australia and Europe.[22][23] Perhaps only in small numbers initially, but by 30 ka they had replaced Neanderthals and H. erectus.[24] Each of these migrations represent the increased flexibility of the genus Homo to survive in widely varied climates. Based on the measurement of a large number of human skulls a recent study supports a central/southern African origin for Homo sapiens as this region shows the highest intra-population diversity in phenotypic measurements. Genetic data supports this conclusion.[24] However, there is genetic evidence to suggest that dispersal out of Africa began in eastern Africa. Sites such as the Omo Kibish Formation, the Herto Member of the Bouri Formation, and Mumba Cave contain fossil evidence to support this conclusion as well.[10]

Evidence for modern human behavior

There have been a number of theories proposed regarding the development of modern human behavior, but in recent years the mosaic approach has been the most favored perspective in regards to the MSA, especially when taken in consideration with the archaeological evidence.[25] Some scholars including Klein[26] have argued for discontinuity, while others including McBrearty and Brooks have argued that cognitive advances can be detected in the MSA and that the origin of our species is linked with the appearance of Middle Stone Age technology at 250–300 ka.[1]

The earliest remains of Homo sapiens date back to approximately 195 thousand years ago in eastern Africa.[10] In the archaeological record of both eastern Africa and southern Africa, there is immense variability associated with Homo sapiens sites, and it is during this time that we see evidence of the origins of modern human behavior. According to McBrearty and Brooks, there are four features that are characteristic of modern human behavior: abstract thinking, the ability to plan and strategize, "behavioral, economic and technological innovativeness," and symbolic behavior.[1] Many of these aspects of modern human behavior can be broken down into more specific categories, including art, personal adornment, technological advancement, yet these four overarching categories allow for a thorough, albeit significantly overlapping, discussion of behavioral modernity.

Possible cultural complexes

Ateriense-punta pedunculada
Aterian stone tool

As early Homo sapiens began to diversify the ecological zones that they inhabited during the MSA, the archaeological record associated with these zones begins to show evidence for regional continuities. These continuities are significant for a number of reasons. The expansion of Homo sapiens into various ecological zones demonstrates an ability to adapt to a variety of environmental contexts including marine environments, savanna grasslands, relatively arid deserts, and forests. This adaptability is reflected in MSA artifacts found in these zones. These artifacts display stylistic variability depending on zone. During the Acheulian, which spanned from 1.5 million years ago to 300 thousand years ago, lithic technology displayed incredible homogeneity throughout all ecological niches. MSA technologies, with their evidence for regional variability and continuity, represent a remarkable advance.[1][7][10] These data have been used to support theories of social and stylistic development throughout the MSA.[27]

In southern Africa, we see the technocomplexes of Howiesons Poort and Stillbay, named after the sites at which they were first discovered. Several others have not been dated or have been dated unreliably; these include the Lupemban technocomplex of central Africa, the Bambatan in southeast Africa, 70-80ka, and the Aterian technocomplex of northern Africa, 160-90ka.[1][25]

Abstract thinking

Evidence of abstract thinking can be seen in the archaeological record as early as the Acheulean-Middle Stone Age transition, approximately 300,000-250,000 years ago. This transition involves a shift in stone tool technology from Mode 2, Acheulean tools, to Mode 3 and 4, which include blades and microliths. The manufacture of these tools requires planning and the understanding of how striking a stone will produce different flaking patterns.[28] This requires abstract thought, one of the hallmarks of modern human behavior.[1] The shift from large cutting tools in the Acheulian to smaller and more diversified toolkits in the MSA represents a better cognitive and conceptual understanding of flintknapping, as well as the potential functional effects of distinct tool types.

Planning depth

The ability to plan and strategize, much like abstract thinking, can be seen in the more diversified toolkit of the Middle Stone Age, as well as in the subsistence patterns of the period. As MSA hominins began to migrate into a range of different ecological zones, it became necessary to base hunting strategies around seasonally available resources. Awareness of seasonality is evident in the faunal remains found at temporary sites. In less forgiving ecological zones, this awareness would have been essential for survival and the ability to plan subsistence strategies based on this awareness demonstrates an ability to think beyond the present tense and act upon this knowledge.[1]

This planning depth is also seen in the presence of exotic raw materials at a variety of sites throughout the MSA. Procurement of local raw materials would have been a simple task to accomplish, yet MSA sites regularly contain raw materials that were obtained from sources over 100 km away, and sometimes farther than 300 km.[5] Obtaining raw materials from this distance would require an awareness of the resources, a perceived value in the resources, whether it be functional or symbolic, and, possibly, the ability to organize an exchange network in order to obtain the materials.[1][5]


The ability to expand into new environments throughout Africa and, ultimately, the world, displays a level of adaptability and, consequently, innovativeness that is often seen as characteristic of behavioral modernity.[1] This, however, is not the only evidence of innovativeness that can be seen in early Homo sapiens. The development of new, regionally relevant tools, such as those used for the collection of marine resources seen at Abdur, Ethiopia, Pinnacle Point Cave, South Africa, and Blombos Cave, South Africa.[1][4] The use of fire demonstrates another innovative aspect of human behavior when it is used in order to create stronger tools, such as the heated silcrete at Blombos, Howiesons Poort and Still Bay,[4][18] and the heat treated bone tools from Still Bay.[25]

Hafted tools are further representative of human innovation. The large cutting tools of the Acheulian technocomplex become smaller, as more complex tools are better suited towards the needs of highly diversified environments. Composite tools represent a new level of innovation in their increased efficacy and more complex manufacturing process. The ability to conceptualize beyond the mere reduction of stone cores demonstrates cognitive flexibility, and the use of glue, which was often processed with ochre, to attach flakes to hafts demonstrates an understanding of chemical changes that can be utilized beyond the simple use of color.[4] Adhesives were used to construct hafted tools by 70ka at Sibudu Cave in South Africa.[1][4]

Symbolic behavior

Apollo-11 stone slab
Zoomorphic pictogram on stone slab from the MSA of Apollo 11 Cave, Namibia

Symbolic behavior is, perhaps, one of the most difficult aspects of modern human behavior to distinguish archaeologically. When searching for evidence of symbolic behavior in the MSA, there are three lines of evidence that can be considered: direct evidence reflecting concrete examples of symbols; indirect evidence reflecting behaviors that would have been used to convey symbolic thought; and technological evidence reflecting the tools and skills that would have been used to produce art. Direct evidence is difficult to find beyond 40ka, and indirect evidence is essentially intangible, thus technological evidence is the most fruitful of the three.[5]

Today there is widespread agreement among archaeologists that the world's first art and symbolic culture dates to the southern African Middle Stone Age. Some of the most striking artifacts, including engraved pieces of red ochre, were manufactured at Blombos Cave in South Africa 70 ka. Pierced and ochred Nassarius shell beads were also recovered from Blombos, with even earlier examples (Middle Stone Age, Aterian) from the Taforalt Caves. Arrows and hide working tools have been found at Sibudu Cave[20] as evidence of making weapons with compound heat treated gluing technology.[21]

Complex cognition

A series of innovations have been documented by 170–160,000 years ago at the site of Pinnacle Point 13B on the southern Cape coast of South Africa.[29] This includes the oldest confirmed evidence for the utilization of ochre and marine resources in the form of shellfish exploitation for food. Based on his analysis of the MSA bovid assemblage at Klasies, Milo[30] reports MSA people were formidable hunters and that their social behavior patterns approached those of modern humans. Deacon[31] maintains that the management of plant food resources through deliberate burning of the veld to encourage the growth of plants with corms or tubers in the southern Cape during the Howiesons Poort (c. 70–55 ka) is indicative of modern human behavior. A family basis to foraging groups, color symbolism and the reciprocal exchange of artifacts and the formal organization of living space are, he suggests, further evidence for modernity in the MSA.

Lyn Wadley et al.[21] have argued that the complexity of the skill needed to process the heat-treated compound glue (gum and red ochre) used to haft spears would seem to argue for continuity between modern human cognition and that of humans 70,000 BP at Sibudu Cave.[32]

Evidence for language

Ochre is reported from some early MSA sites, for example at Kapthurin and Twin Rivers, and is common after c. 100 ka.[33] Barham[34] argues that even if some of this ochre was used in a symbolic, color-related role then this abstraction could not have worked without language. Ochre, he suggests, could be one proxy for trying to find the emergence of language.

Formal bone tools are frequently associated with modern behaviour by archaeologists.[35] Sophisticated bone harpoons manufactured at Katanda, West Africa at c. 90 ka[36][37] and bone tools from Blombos Cave dated at c. 77 ka[35] may then also serve as examples of material culture associated with modern language.

Language has been suggested to be necessary to maintain exchange networks. Evidence of some form of exchange networks during the Middle Stone Age is presented in Marwick (2003) in which the distance between the source of raw material and location in which a stone artifact was found was compared throughout sites containing early stone artifacts.[38] Five Middle Stone Age sites contained distances between 140–340 km and have been interpreted, when compared with ethnographic data, that these distances were made possible through exchange networks.[38] Barham[39] also views syntactic language as one aspect of behavior that in fact allowed MSA people to settle in the tropical forest environments of what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Many authors have speculated that at the core of this symbolic explosion, and in tandem, was the development of syntactic language that evolved through a highly specialized social learning system[40] providing the means for semantically unbounded discourse.[41] Syntax would have played a key role in this process and its full adoption could have been a crucial element of the symbolic behavioral package in the MSA.[42]

Brain change

Although the advent of anatomical physical modernity cannot confidently be linked with palaeoneurological change,[43] it does seem probable that hominid brains evolved through the same selection processes as other body parts.[44] Genes that promoted a capacity for symbolism may have been selected for, suggesting that the foundations for symbolic culture may well be grounded in biology. However, behavior that was mediated by symbolism may have only come later, even though this physical capacity was already in place much earlier. Skoyles and Sagan, for example, argue that human brain expansion by increasing the prefrontal cortex would have created a brain capable of symbolizing its previously non-symbolic cognition, and that this process, slow to begin with, increasingly accelerated during the last 100,000 years.[45] Symbolically mediated behavior may then feed back upon this process by creating a greater ability to manufacture symbolic artifacts and social networks. According to the research team in Jebel Irhoud, the discovery means that Homo sapiens — not members of a rival or ancestor species (Homo heidelbergensis, Homo naledi) — were the ones who left behind Middle Stone Age hand tools that have since been unearthed all over Africa.[46]


Pinnacle Point Archaeological Site, Mossel Bay South Africa
Excavations at Pinnacle Point, South Africa

Numerous sites in southern Africa reflect the four characteristics of behavioral modernity. Blombos Cave, South Africa contains personal ornaments and what are presumed to be the tools used for the production of artistic imagery, as well as bone tools.[25] Still Bay and Howieson's Poort contain variable tool technologies.[47] These different types of assemblages allow researchers to extrapolate behaviors that would likely be associated with such technologies, such as shifts in foraging behaviors, which are further supported by faunal data at these sites.

See also


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African archaeology

Africa has the longest record of human habitation in the world. The first hominins emerged 6-7 million years ago, and among the earliest anatomically modern human skulls found so far were discovered at Omo Kibish.European archaeology, as well as that of North Africa, is generally divided into the Stone Age (comprising the Lower Paleolithic, the Middle Paleolithic, the Upper Paleolithic, the Mesolithic, and the Neolithic), the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age. For Africa south of the Sahara, African archaeology is classified in a slightly different way, with the Paleolithic generally divided into the Early Stone Age, the Middle Stone Age, and the Later Stone Age. After these three stages come the Pastoral Neolithic, the Iron Age and then later historical periods.

Africa's prehistory has been largely ignored, with the exception of research into early human evolution. However, it is overseen by the PanAfrican Archaeological Association, whose members consist of professional archaeologists from all over Africa.

Archaic humans

A number of varieties of Homo are grouped into the broad category of archaic humans in the period contemporary to and predating the emergence of the earliest anatomically modern humans (Homo sapiens) over 315 ka. The term typically includes Homo neanderthalensis (430+–25 ka), Denisovans, Homo rhodesiensis (300–125 ka), Homo heidelbergensis (600–200 ka), and Homo antecessor.

There is no universal consensus on this terminology, and varieties of "archaic humans" are included under the binomial name of either Homo sapiens or Homo erectus by some authors.

Archaic humans had a brain size averaging 1,200 to 1,400 cubic centimeters, which overlaps with the range of modern humans. Archaics are distinguished from anatomically modern humans by having a thick skull, prominent supraorbital ridges (brow ridges) and the lack of a prominent chin.Anatomically modern humans appear from over 160,000 years ago in Ethiopia and after 70,000 years ago (see Toba catastrophe theory), gradually supplanting the "archaic" human varieties. Non-modern varieties of Homo are certain to have survived until after 30,000 years ago, and perhaps until as recently as 12,000 years ago. Which of these, if any, are included under the term "archaic human" is a matter of definition and varies among authors. Nonetheless, according to recent genetic studies, modern humans may have bred with "at least two groups" of ancient humans: Neanderthals and Denisovans. Other studies have cast doubt on admixture being the source of the shared genetic markers between archaic and modern humans, pointing to an ancestral origin of the traits which originated 500,000–800,000 years ago.Another group may also have been extant as recently as 11,500 years ago, the Red Deer Cave people of China. Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum in London has suggested that these people could be a result of mating between Denisovans and modern humans. Other scientists remain skeptical, suggesting that the unique features are within the variations expected for modern human populations.

Art of the Middle Paleolithic

The oldest undisputed examples of figurative art are known from Europe and from Sulawesi, Indonesia, dated about 35,000 years old (Art of the Upper Paleolithic).

Together with religion and other cultural universals of contemporary human societies, the emergence of figurative art is a necessary attribute of full behavioral modernity.

There are, however, some examples of non-figurative designs which somewhat predate the Upper Paleolithic, beginning about 70,000 years ago (MIS 4).

These include the earliest of the Iberian cave paintings, including a hand stencil at the Cave of Maltravieso, a simple linear design, and red paint applied to speleothems, dated to at least 64,000 years ago and as such attributable to Neanderthals. Similarly, the Blombos Cave of South Africa yielded some stones with engraved grid or cross-hatch patterns, dated to some 70,000 years ago, but they are attributed to Homo Sapiens.

In September 2018, scientists reported the discovery of the earliest known drawing by Homo sapiens, which is estimated to be 73,000 years old, much earlier than the 43,000 years old artifacts understood to be the earliest known modern human drawings found previously.


The Aterian is a Middle Stone Age (or Middle Palaeolithic) stone tool industry centered in North Africa, but also possibly found in Oman and the Thar Desert. The earliest Aterian dates to c. 145,000 years ago, at the site of Ifri n'Ammar in Morocco. However, most of the early dates cluster around the beginning of the Last Interglacial, around 130,000 years ago, when the environment of North Africa began to ameliorate. The Aterian disappeared around 20,000 years ago.

The Aterian is primarily distinguished through the presence of tanged or pedunculated tools, and is named after the type site of Bir el Ater, south of Tébessa. Bifacially-worked, leaf-shaped tools are also a common artefact type in Aterian assemblages, and so are racloirs and Levallois flakes and cores. Items of personal adornment (pierced and ochred Nassarius shell beads) are known from at least one Aterian site, with an age of 82,000 years. The Aterian is one of the oldest examples of regional technological diversification, evidencing significant differentiation to older stone tool industries in the area, frequently described as Mousterian. The appropriateness of the term Mousterian is contested in a North African context, however.

Blombos Cave

Blombos Cave is an archaeological site located in Blomboschfontein Nature Reserve, about 300 km east of Cape Town on the Southern Cape coastline, South Africa. The cave contains Middle Stone Age (MSA) deposits currently dated at between c. 100,000 and 70,000 years Before Present (BP), and a Late Stone Age sequence dated at between 2000 and 300 years BP. The cave site was first excavated in 1991 and field work has been conducted there on a regular basis since 1997, and is ongoing.The excavations at Blombos Cave have yielded important new information on the behavioural evolution of anatomically modern humans. The archaeological record from this cave site has been central in the ongoing debate on the cognitive and cultural origin of early humans and to the current understanding of when and where key behavioural innovations emerged among Homo sapiens in southern Africa during the Late Pleistocene. Archaeological material and faunal remains recovered from the Middle Stone Age phase in Blombos Cave – dated to ca. 100,000–70,000 years BP – are considered to represent greater ecological niche adaptation, a more diverse set of subsistence and procurements strategies, adoption of multi-step technology and manufacture of composite tools, stylistic elaboration, increased economic and social organisation and occurrence of symbolically mediated behaviour.

The most informative archaeological material from Blombos Cave includes engraved ochre, engraved bone ochre processing kits, marine shell beads, refined bone and stone tools and a broad range of terrestrial and marine faunal remains, including shellfish, birds, tortoise and ostrich egg shell and mammals of various sizes. These findings, together with subsequent re-analysis and excavation of other Middle Stone Age sites in southern Africa, have resulted in a paradigm shift with regard to the understanding of the timing and location of the development of modern human behaviour.

On 29 May 2015 Heritage Western Cape formally protected the site as a provincial heritage site.Cross-hatching done in ochre on a stone fragment found at Blombos Cave is believed to be the earliest known drawing done by a human in the world.

Border Cave

Border Cave is a rock shelter on the western scarp of the Lebombo Mountains in KwaZulu-Natal near the border between South Africa and Swaziland. Border Cave has a remarkably continuous stratigraphic record of occupation spanning about 200 ka. Anatomically modern Homo sapiens skeletons together with stone tools and chipping debris were recovered. Dating by Carbon-14, amino acid racemisation and electron spin resonance places the oldest sedimentary ash at some 200 kiloannum.Excavations for guano in 1940 by a certain W. E. Barton of Swaziland, revealed a number of human bone fragments and were recognised as extremely old by Professor Raymond Dart, who had visited the site in July 1934, but had carried out only a superficial examination. In 1941 and 1942, a team sponsored by the University of the Witwatersrand carried out a more thorough survey. Subsequent excavations in the 1970s by Peter Beaumont were rewarded with rich yields. The site produced not only the complete skeleton of an infant, but also the remains of at least five adult hominins. Also recovered were more than 69,000 artifacts, and the remains of more than 43 mammal species, three of which are now extinct.Also recovered from the cave was the "Lebombo Bone", the oldest known artifact showing a counting tally. Dated to 35,000 years, it is a small piece of baboon fibula incised with 29 notches, similar to the calendar sticks used by the San of Namibia. Animal remains from the cave show that its early inhabitants had a diet of bushpig, warthog, zebra and buffalo. Raw materials used in the making of artifacts include chert, rhyolite, quartz, and chalcedony, as well as bone, wood and ostrich egg shells.

The west-facing cave, which is near Ingwavuma, is located about 100 m below the crest of the Lebombo range and commands sweeping views of the Swazi countryside below. It is semi-circular in horizontal section, some 40 m across, and formed in Jurassic lavas as a result of differential weathering.A set of tools almost identical to that used by the modern San people and dating to 44,000 BP were discovered at the cave in 2012. These represent the earliest unambiguous evidence for modern human behaviour.In 2015, the South African government submitted a proposal to add the cave to the list of World Heritage Sites and it has been placed on the UNESCO list of tentative sites as a potential future 'serial nomination' together with Blombos Cave, Pinnacle Point, Klasies River Caves, Sibudu Cave and Diepkloof Rock Shelter.

Diepkloof Rock Shelter

Diepkloof Rock Shelter is a rock shelter in Western Cape, South Africa in which has been found some of the earliest evidence of the human use of symbols, in the form of patterns engraved upon ostrich eggshell water containers. These date around 60,000 years ago.The symbolic patterns consist of lines crossed at right angles or oblique angles by hatching. It has been suggested that "by the repetition of this motif, early humans were trying to communicate something. Perhaps they were trying to express the identity of the individual or the group."

Early history of South Africa

The Prehistory of South Africa (and, inseparably, the wider region of Southern Africa) lasts from the Middle Stone Age until the 17th century. Southern Africa was first reached by Homo sapiens before 130,000 years ago, possibly before 260,000 years ago.

The region remained in the Late Stone Age until the first traces of pastoralism were introduced about 2,000 years ago.

The Bantu migration reached the area about 1,500 years ago, largely displacing the indigenous Khoisanid population. Early Bantu kingdoms were established by the 11th century.

First European contact dates to 1488, European colonization of the interior begins in the 17th century (see History of South Africa (1652–1815)).

Florisbad Skull

The Florisbad Skull is an important human fossil of the early Middle Stone Age, representing either late Homo heidelbergensis or early Homo sapiens.

It was discovered in 1932 by T. F. Dreyer at the Florisbad site, Free State Province, South Africa.

Howieson's Poort Shelter

Howieson’s Poort Shelter is a small rock shelter in South Africa containing the archaeological site from which the Howiesons Poort period in the Middle Stone Age gets its name. This period lasted around 5,000 years, between roughly 65,800 BP and 59,500 BP.

This period is important as it, together with the Stillbay period 7,000 years earlier, provides the first evidence of human symbolism and technological skills that were later to appear in the Upper Paleolithic.

Howiesons Poort

Howiesons Poort (also called HP) is a lithic technology cultural period in the Middle Stone Age in Africa named after the Howieson’s Poort Shelter archeological site near Grahamstown in South Africa. It seems to have lasted around 5,000 years between roughly 65,800 BP and 59,500 BP (Jacobs 2008).Humans of this period as in the earlier Stillbay cultural period showed signs of having used symbolism and having engaged in the cultural exchange of gifts.Howiesons Poort culture is characterized by tools that seemingly anticipate many of the characteristics, 'Running ahead of time', of those found in the Upper Palaeolithic period that started 25,000 years later around 40,000 BP. Howiesons Poort culture has been described as “both ‘modern’ and ‘non-modern’”.

Klasies River Caves

The Klasies River Caves are a series of caves located to the east of the Klasies River mouth on the Tsitsikamma coast in the Humansdorp district of Eastern Cape Province, South Africa. The three main caves and two shelters at the base of a high cliff have revealed evidence of middle stone age-associated human habitation from approximately 125,000 years ago. The 20 metres (66 ft) thick deposits were accumulated from 125,000 years ago. Around 75,000 years ago, during cave remodelling, the stratigraphic sediments were moved out into external middens.

In 2015, the South African government submitted a proposal to add the caves to the list of World Heritage Sites.From 1960, Ronald Singer, Ray Inskeep, John Wymer, Hilary Deacon, Richard Klein and others suggested the excavation yielded the earliest known evidence of behaviourally modern humans.

Further analysis suggested that the specimens fall "outside the range of modern variation".

Later Stone Age

The Later Stone Age (LSA) is a period in African prehistory that follows the Middle Stone Age.

The Later Stone Age is associated with the advent of modern human behavior in Africa, although definitions of this concept and means of studying it are up for debate. The transition from the Middle Stone Age to the Later Stone Age is thought to have occurred first in eastern Africa between 50,000 and 39,000 years ago. It is also thought that Later Stone Age peoples and/or their technologies spread out of Africa over the next several thousand years.The terms "Early Stone Age", "Middle Stone Age" and "Later Stone Age" in the context of African archaeology are not to be confused with the terms Lower Paleolithic, Middle Paleolithic, and Upper Paleolithic.

They were introduced in the 1920s, as it became clear that the existing chronological system of Upper, Middle, and Lower Paleolithic was not a suitable correlate to the prehistoric past in Africa. Some scholars, however, continue to view these two chronologies as parallel, arguing that they both represent the development of behavioral modernity.

Middle Paleolithic

The Middle Paleolithic (or Middle Palaeolithic) is the second subdivision of the Paleolithic or Old Stone Age as it is understood in Europe, Africa and Asia. The term Middle Stone Age is used as an equivalent or a synonym for the Middle Paleolithic in African archeology. The Middle Paleolithic broadly spanned from 300,000 to 30,000 years ago. There are considerable dating differences between regions. The Middle Paleolithic was succeeded by the Upper Paleolithic subdivision which first began between 50,000 and 40,000 years ago. Pettit and White date the Early Middle Paleolithic in Great Britain to about 325,000 to 180,000 years ago (late Marine Isotope Stage 9 to late Marine Isotope Stage 7), and the Late Middle Paleolithic as about 60,000 to 35,000 years ago.According to the theory of the recent African origin of modern humans, anatomically modern humans began migrating out of Africa during the Middle Stone Age/Middle Paleolithic around 100,000 or 70,000 years ago and began to replace earlier pre-existent Homo species such as the Neanderthals and Homo erectus. However, recent discoveries of fossils originating from what is now Israel indicate that our species (Homo sapiens) lived outside of Africa 185,000 years ago; some 85,000 years earlier than previous evidence suggests.


Ngalue Cave is an archaeological site located in the Niassa province of Mozambique. Excavated primarily by Julio Mercader in 2007, Ngalue is a Middle Stone Age site. Due to its relatively dry environment and the shape of the cave, Ngalue had very good preservation and not only were stone tools and animal bones found. There were preserved starch grains on many of the stone tools as well. Overall, this site can help add to our knowledge of the Middle Stone Age site in the Niassa valley and to our understanding of the subsistence of Middle Stone Age peoples in Eastern Africa as a whole.

Plovers Lake

Plovers Lake Cave is a fossil-bearing breccia filled cavity in South Africa. The cave is located about 4 km Southeast of the well known South African hominid-bearing sites of Sterkfontein and Kromdraai and about 36 km Northwest of the City of Johannesburg, South Africa. Plovers Lake has been declared a South African National Heritage Site.

Prepared-core technique

The prepared-core technique is means of producing stone tools by first preparing common stone cores into shapes that lend themselves to knapping off flakes that closely resemble the desired tool and require only minor touch-ups to be usable.

In contrast to earlier techniques, where cores themselves were the end product shaped and trimmed down by removal of flakes, in prepared-core technique large flakes are the product and the core is used to produce them. This shift made it faster and more resource-efficient, as multiple tools could be struck from a single piece of starting material.

Shum Laka

The archaeological site of Shum Laka is the most prominent rockshelter site in the Grasslands region of the Laka Valley, northwest Cameroon. Occupations at this rockshelter date to the Later Stone Age. This region is important to investigations of the development and subsequent diffusion of the Bantu culture. The site of Shum Laka is located approximately 15 kilometers from the town of Bamenda, and it resides on the inner wall of the Bafochu Mbu caldera. The deposits at Shum Laka include each phase of cultural development in the Grasslands.

Sibudu Cave

Sibudu Cave is a rock shelter in a sandstone cliff in northern KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. It is an important Middle Stone Age site occupied, with some gaps, from 77,000 years ago to 38,000 years ago.

Evidence of some of the earliest examples of modern human technology has been found in the shelter (although the earliest known spears date back 400,000 years). The evidence in the shelter includes the earliest bone arrow (61,000 years old), the earliest needle (61,000 years old), the earliest use of heat-treated mixed compound gluing (72,000 years ago), and the earliest example of the use of bedding (77,000 years ago).The use of glues and bedding are of particular interest, because the complexity of their creation and processing has been presented as evidence of continuity between early human cognition and that of modern humans.

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