P314 Earlier Prehistory of Africa

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Week 2: History of Archaeological research in South Africa

Map of South African early hominid sites

History of Research


John Goodwin was first professor of archaeology in Cape Town, South Africa. Working with Peter Van Riet Lowe he established the first typological framework for the African Stone Age. We still use his terminology today in sub-Saharan Africa. It is significant that he felt it was important to have a system of describing stone age Africa that was independent of Europe.

Early Stone Age (flake/core industry, including Acheulian)

Middle Stone Age (prefab. cores, flake & blade tools)

Later Stone Age (microlithic industry)

At the same time, (1929) Raymond Dart, (anatomy professor) first described the Taung skull -- a juvenile that he named Australopithecus africanus, or southern ape from Africa. He met problems because he felt Taung was human ancestor and European colleagues refused to believe it -- they already had a "missing link" (Piltdown) and he was English!

This week I want to introduce you to the QUEST FOR HUMAN ORIGINS and the cast of characters for the earliest phases of human prehistory that we will be studying -- the fossil hominids that have been discovered in Africa during this century.

Today we are going to focus on South Africa, because that is where research first began. We are going to talk not only about the hominid fossils that have been found, but also the site contexts which they come from, because this is one of the ways the South African record contrasts strongly with the East African record.


During the period before WWII Dart was vindicated because Robert Broom, excavating in South African caves, found lots of adult Australopithecines -- big ones and little ones.

1936-1947 Broom found adult A. africanus specimens, including the STS-5 cranium ("Mrs. Ples") and partial skeleton at STERKFONTEIN... site in Transvaal

late 1940's Broom worked at KROMDRAI and later SWARTKRANS and found "Paranthropus robustus"... by 1940's LeGros Clark had included the australopithecines as hominids because they were bipeds and they had small canines

As collecting of fossils continued, the scientific community began to appretiate the antiquity of human evolution in Africa, because their hominid fossils were associated with the bones of extinct, Ice Age, animals. (We will discuss the cultural record of these caves in more detail later.) But key problem was still chronology, particularly in australopithecine cave sites. These were limestone caverns filled with concretions -- "breccia" of sediments cemented with disolved carbonates. Taung skull was found in limestone mining operation (blasted out). The australopithecines, and other fossilized animal remains were associated in what seemed to be a "rock pudding" -- all mixed together, with no sequence discernable.


There was some debate about whether the "gracile" Australopithecines and the "robust" Australopithecines were males and females of the same species, or large and small contemporary species, or perhaps members of the same lineage. Were one or both of these species ancestral to humans? John Robinson was the first to suggest a trophic-level niche difference, that the robust ones were more vegetarian and the gracile ones omnivorous (thus smarter and our ancestors)...

Robinson was the first to invent the "non-cultural hominid." He uncoupled the notion that tools=hominid=man.

e.g. Paranthropus = vegetarian, no culture, forest-dweller

vs. Australopithecus = junior hunter/gatherer, tool user, savanna-dweller

This was really the first time anthropologists were face to face with protohumans -- had to wrestle with concept of a hominid that was not human. They took some comfort in fact that no stone tools had been found with the australopithecines. So they could reserve "culture" as a uniquely human attribute.

It was in this context that Raymond Dart developed an interpretation of Australopithecines that still influences our perception of human origins today. Dart examined the fossils coming out of australopithecine caves -- in depth study of Makapansgat cave in Transvaal, where A. africanus fossils had been found. He argued that not only were we descended from australopithecines, but that they were Killer Apes. He thought the fossil bones found in the cave with the australopithecines had been their prey. But there were no stone tools -- how did the man-apes hunt? Dart argued that the hominids used broken bones, teeth, and animal horns as weapons -- he called it the Osteo-Donto-Keratic culture.

In the post-WWII climate, we could explain our blood thirsty, vicious nature as something inherited from a deep past. This idea struck a cord with many westerners, because it echoed aspects of the Biblical tradition -- Adam and Eve ejected from the Garden of Eden because of their base natures.. . and a vision of human origins that is distinct from a romantic view of nature (popular at turn of century). Dart's ideas were popularized by Robert Ardry in African Genesis (1961), and seen in recent movies...(video clips of 2001, Quest for Fire, and Dart himself).(The "Killer Ape Hypothesis" is discussed in more detail in the two chapters by C.K.Brain, as well as in the Human Beginnings text).

New terms/concepts:


Taphonomy, Stratigraphy, Bio-Stratigraphy, Radio-metric Dating

Studying the South African australopithecine caves in the first half of the century. The main problem the scientists faced was the context of the fossils -- no way of dating them, no clear associations.

C.K. (Bob) Brain's studies of the south African australopithecine caves mark a new approach to the study of these sites. Whereas Dart assumed that the jumble of bones blasted out of the caves were all associated, and assumed that the hominids had lived in the caves and killed the animals, Brain asked the questions:

How did these caves form?

How did so many bones come to be fossilized there?

He studied TAPHONOMY -- the processes that led to the formation of the site of Swartkrans and the fossilization of the bones there.

Site formation processes at Swartkrans. (video clip of Brain and cave itself)

Based on "actualistic" studies of situations in which bones accumulate today (porcupine caves, carnivore dens, areas under trees where leopards sleep) and carnivore behavior, he argued that bones trickled into the cave openings along with the sediments, washed-in from the ground surface, dropped-in by local carnivores. He reached the opposite conclusion from Dart: the australopithecines were not the hunters, they were the hunted.

However, in looking in detail at some of the bones, he discovered some of them that he felt were definitely modified:

Brain's work is an example of recent approaches to the study of African archaeology -- an interest in the behavior/adaptation of the fossil hominids, an interest in the processes that created the record we have today, and a renaissance of innovative techniques, experiments in the modern world that help us learn to interpret the record of the past.

More recently, researchers have returned to these caves to analyze their complex stratigraphy in detail, and to find fossils and artifacts in context. Ron Clarke, for example, has recently discovered a complete australopithecine skeleton in situ. Kathy Kuman has described stone artifacts from the deposits at several sites, including Sterkfontein, Krondraai and Swartkrans. But most of these artifacts seem to have washed into the caves from the surface... so while the artifacts were contemporary with the hominids,

South African caves provided the first evidence of proto humans (Australopithecines & early Homo) in Africa, but their evidence was AMBIGUOUS because

The advent of dating technology in the late 1950's changed the way we studied the past. We no longer had to focus on documenting cultural or fossil sequences. We could focus on exploring the behavior of fossil hominids, and understanding activities that took place at sites. HOWEVER

 Professor Jeanne Sept
 (812) 855-5395 ; email: SEPT  
 Office Hours Student Bldg 038

TuTh 1:00-2:00, or by appt.

   Lectures: Student Bldg 150

TuTh 11:15-12:30


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Last updated: 4 September, 2000
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Copyright Jeanne Sept 2000 : do not cite without permission

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