South African sites reveal more about early modern human culture

Early modern human cultural interactions investigated through Middle Stone Age tool technologies.

University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa—Two of South Africa’s most famous archaeological sites, Sibudu  and  Blombos,  have  revealed  that  Middle   Stone  Age  groups  who  lived  in these different  areas,  more  than  1,000  kilometres  apart,  used  similar   types  of  stone  tools  some  71,000  years ago,  but  that  there  were  differences  in  the  ways  that  these  tools   were  made.  

“This was not the case at 65,000 years ago when similarities in stone tool making suggest that similar cultural traditions spread across South Africa,” says Professor Lyn Wadley, archaeologist from the University  of  the Witwatersrand,  Johannesburg.

Wadley  is  part  of  an  international  team  of  researchers  from  South  Africa,  France,  the  US  and  Italy  who published  the results of their systematic study of Middle Stone Age (MSA) stone  tool  technologies in a paper, titled:  The  Still  Bay  and  Howiesons  Poort  at  Sibudu  and  Blombos:  Understanding  Middle  Stone   Age technologies,  in  the  journal,  PLoS  One,  on  10  July  2015.  

The team also includes Wits University’s Professor Christopher Henshilwood, as well as lead author Sylvain Soriano  (France),  Paola  Villa  (US),  and  others  (*).    

The  researchers  undertook  systematic  technological  and  typological  analysis  on  two  types  of  Middle   Stone  Age  assemblages—Still  Bay  and  Howiesons  Poort—from  two  of  the  most  famous  archaeological   sites  from  this  time  period  in  South  Africa,  Blombos  Cave  in  the  Western  Cape  and  Sibudu  in  KwaZulu-Natal.  At  these  sites  we  find  much  of  the  archaeological  evidence  for  the  origins  of  modern  human   behaviour.  

In  the  paper,  using  their  own  and  published  data  from  other  sites,  the  researchers  report  on  the   diversity between  stone  artifact  assemblages  and  discuss  to  what  extent  they  can  be  grouped  into   homogeneous lithic  sets.    

In  agreement  with  results  of  previous  studies  of  broadly  contemporaneous  Howiesons  Poort   assemblages by other analysts, the researchers’ analysis  argues  for  some  uniformity  in  this  cultural   entity  among  sites spread  across  a  vast  region  from  the  Western  Cape  to  the  Free  State  and  KwaZulu-­‐ Natal.

Despite  the  use  of  different  rock  types  in  each  site,  Howiesons  Poort  craftsmen  follow  the  same  pattern   to  knap  stone.  Small  blades  were  produced  and used as blanks for “penknife-like” backed and pointed tools, hafted  and  used  both  as  cutting  devices  and  composite  elements  of  hunting  weaponry.  

This  supports  the  idea  of  a  long-lasting  system  of  complex  behavioural  traditions  that  may  have  been   socially  transmitted  by  teaching  and  verbal  instructions.  The  study  also  implies  that  the  Howiesons  Poort   complex  was  not  static,  but  underwent  gradual  changes  through  time.  

A  similar  approach  was  used  in  the  analysis  of  the  Still  Bay  assemblages  from  Sibudu  and  Blombos.  At  Sibudu,  stone  knapping  was  almost  completely  oriented  towards  the  production  of  thin,  long,  double   pointed  stone  points.  

These  points  were  designed  for  a  primary  use  as  cutting  devices  and  a  long  re-­‐sharpening  process  was   applied  to  these  tools  to  ensure  their  long-­‐life  use.  These  points  were  also  used  as  tips  of  hunting   weapons.


Blombos Still Bay pointsBlombos Still Bay points. Courtesy University of the Witwatersrand


Howiesons Poort baked tools of quartzHowiesons Poort baked tools of quartz. Courtesy University of the Witwatersrand


Although  elements  of  similarity  are  certainly  present,  the  manufacturing  differences  observed  between   the Sibudu  and  Blombos  Still  Bay-­type  tools  considerably  weaken  their  grouping  into  the  same  cultural   entity.  In  other  words,  at  71,000  years  ago  stone  tool  making  at  Sibudu  and  Blombos  did  not  share  the   same  rules  and  traditions.  Still  Bay  sites  are  still  not  common  in  South  Africa  and  future  research  might  provide  new  observations  needed  to  determine  whether  the  Still  Bay  really  does  have  directional  change   different  from  that  of the  Howiesons  Poort.  


(*)  Authors:  Sylvain  Soriano  (ArScAn,  AnTET,  Université  Paris  Quest,  CNRS,  France);  Paola  Villa  (University   of  Colorado  Museum,  US);  Anne  Delagnes  (CNRS-­‐PACEA,  Université  de  Bordeaux,  France),  Ilaria  Degano   (Dipartimento  di  Chimica  and  Chimica  Industriale  Università  di  Pisa,  Italy);  Luca  Pollarolo  (Department  of   Genetics  and  Evolution,  University  of  Geneva,  Switzerland);  Jeannette  J.  Lucejko  (Dipartimento  di  Chimica   and  Chimica  Industriale  Università  di  Pisa,  Italy);  and  Christopher  Henshilwood  and  Lyn  Wadley  from  the   Evolutionary  Studies  Institute,  University  of  the  Witwatersrand,  South  Africa.

Adapted and edited from a press release of the University of the Witwatersrand.


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