P314 Earlier Prehistory of Africa

Home Page | Syllabus | Readings | Lecture Notes | Quiz Site | Assignments

This week: archaic Homo sapiens and the Late Acheulian and Terminal Acheulian in Africa -- transitions to the Middle Stone Age.

North Africa:

Acheulian across the Sahara! These are mostly sites in secondary context. The fact that many of these bifaces were found in deflated dunes doesn't mean Homo erectus roamed the deserts! But it does emphasize the huge impact that climate change had on folks after 800,000 years ago in particular -- the Middle Pleistocene -- globe really settled into modern flipflop of ice ages -- a glacial/inter-glacial cylcle of approximately one every 100,000 years or so. In the Sahara there were grasslands and evidence of lakes, for example. A Mediteranean climate, with cold, wet winters and hot, dry summers. Glacial periods = low sea level (dune consolidation on coast). Interglacial periods = higher sea levels .

Acheulian Sites Several major sites in various contexts of northwest coast in Morocco and Algeria, that show local transition from a "Pebble Culture" to a biface tradition. All are old excavations, with few details available.

Ain Hanech. Algeria, near Atlas Mts. First excavated by Camille Arambourg, and then, during the last few years by Mohammed Sahnouni. A site with early Pleistocene fauna -- looks like Bed II Olduvai -- and stone tools that look like Developed Oldowan (choppers, spheroids, flakes -- especially polyhedrons in limestone). Dating? probably 1.8-2.0 mya. Normal sediments. Mohammed recently excavated a nice butchery locality. Handaxes overly these early deposits in a conglomerate (mixed gravel) -- so later in time.

Ternifine. Algeria. Site buried in sands accumulating in a spring-fed pool. Middle Pleistocene fauna + Homo erectus mandibles + Acheulian tools, including handaxes, cleavers, choppers and small tools, near what was called a "Rue de Chasse" or game trail -- suggesting hunting strategy? No details. Dates? Early Middle Pleistocene? Recent Uranium-series dates from tooth enamel suggest dates older than 360,000, but probably younger than Ain Hanech fauna <700,000 bp.

Sidi Abderahman. Morocco. On Atlantic coast, near Casablanca! Area of gently sloping coastal plains -- techtonically stable, but slowly rising + fluctuating sea level with changing climate .... has created a series of transgressive shoreline deposits and consolidated dunes. So careful geology, again, is the key to understanding the relative ages of these sites (no direct dating for early levels-- biostratigraphic correlation, and estimates of timing of sea level changes). Sites occur in a range of different contexts, including beach and consolidated dunes, caves, and stream deposits traversing the marshy plains. A famous site called the STIC quarry contains rough Acheulian bifaces and large, terrestrial mammal fauna near a freshwater stream. Note that even though these are shoreline sites, there is no evidence of marine exploitation.
In this sequence you can see an evolution of flaking technique -- later bifaces much more finely shaped, and often made using a prepared-core or "proto- Levallois" technique.

Interesting technology --
many of bifaces found along coast made on pebbles -- NOT large flakes -- just like in Europe -- shows adaptation of handaxe concept to a different form -- definite "mental template"
however, some of Acheulian does take advantage of large flakes in a way that heralds technological planning/skills of later periods: the Tabebala-Tachengit technique produced pre-formed cleavers from huge, trimmed cores, and the Kombewa flake technique produced large bifacial flakes from boulder cores with a flake release surface on each face.

One of key new technology types which MAY appear during this time is FIRE...


In what ways would controlling/using fire have been useful to hominids? (adaptive advantage)


In East Africa, evidence for burning has been suggested for several sites:

FxJj20 (1.5 ma) (East Turkana) + A.boisei

Chesowanja (1.4ma) (Kenya) + A.boisei (clasts of baked clay... disturbance)

Gadeb (1.5-0.7ma) & Middle Awash (Ethiopia)

Important facts to ascertain:

localized discoloration of earth + deep (not superficial) chemical alteration (=oxidation)

paleomagnetism (intensity and direction suggest hotter temperatures and re-burning of same spot)

thermal alteration of artifacts


Member III: 5 meters of deposit... probably 1.5 - 1.0 mya

A. robustus fossils, some intrusive handaxes, stone tools and cutmarked bones, bone tools (worn to points) and 270/59,000 pieces of burnt bones suggest FIRE use (including 2 of bone tools)

Burnt bone:

South-central African sites:

In Zambia, there are several sites with Late Acheulian industries.
Broken Hill Cave, now called Kabwe, contained a series of stratigraphic layers, with Acheulian at very bottom. Most significant because contains SKULL of something more advanced than Homo erectus -- archaic Homo sapiens -- dating difficult because association was unclear -- skull may even have come from above Acheulian levels??? But ~250,000 years old

Kalambo Falls was excavated by J.D. Clark -- a series of levels, but at the bottom are Acheulian sites, with gorgeous big bifaces, and lots of organic remains such as carbonized wood, but no bone. Pollen and botanical remains suggest the area was a dry, deciduous woodland. Hard to date -- Carbon 14 dates no good... best estimates based on fauna, say 250,000 years old? One layer of Late Acheulian sites containe 7-8 concentrations, separated by thin layers of sand -- suggests re-use of favorable localities -- real "living floors". Burnt logs = clear evidence of FIRE! and also associated with fire- fractured quartzite. Overlying levels at Kalambo Falls contain large tool elements called core axes and picks and triehedrals, distinct from Acheulian bifaces. These tool forms are given a new industry name, called the Sangoan... a late Acheulian or early Middle Stone Age industry.

South Africa:
Artifacts associated with sequence of river terrace deposits (e.g. Vaal River gravels), .... secondary sites, but show technological sequence (handaxes get more refined through time) including "Victoria West" core technique, a "prefab" technique of producing large bifaces similar in concept to Tachengit technique from North Africa

Cave sites in interior grassland plateau of southern Africa:

Cave of Hearths in Transvaal region (Gauteng province) of South Africa was excavated in years after WWII by Revel Mason... contains deep sequence of deposits, up through Iron Age. Includes over 30 feet (10 meters) of Acheulian deposit. Level:
11 Iron Age
10 LSA Later Stone Age
9-4 MSA Middle Stone Age
xxxxxxxxx sterile rocky layer
3 Late Acheulian (including large hearths, burnt bones, etc) and archaic Homo mandible fragment
2 Late Acheulian + hearths
1 Basal "burnt zone" is actually calcined bat guano...

Montagu Cave in South Africa also contained a long sequence of Acheulian associated with hearths, showing transition to a new cultural phase, the Middle Stone Age


bits and pieces of Homo erectus found from a number of these Moroccan and Algerian sites... e.g. mandibles from Ternifine. One particularly interesting piece is back of cranium from Sale, in Morocco, which is definitely an "evolved" Homo erectus or "archaic" Homo sapiens, dated geologically to ca. 400,000 years ago. These hominids had larger brains with larger parietal and frontal regions than earlier Homo, but retained the robust cranial bones and large brow ridges and long skull shape of earlier Homo.

Increasingly, anthropologists are referring to these forms of "archaic Homo" by different species or subspecies names... such as Homo antecessor and Homo heidelbergenisis in Europe and Homo sapiens rhodesiensis or H. heidelbergensis in northern and sub-Saharan Africa.

Buia skull from Eritrea. Recently discovered. Transitional between H. erectus and later archaic in both brain size and cranio-facial morphology. 1 million years old.
Bodo skull, from Middle Awash in Ethiopia in sediments 600,000 years old (Science article by Clark et al 1994) and associated with mix of Oldowan and Acheulian assemblages (note that this date is contemporary with "classic" Homo erectus from China...!). This is skull with cutmarks on cheek bones and inside eye orbits, indicating defleshing with a stone tool.

General Late Acheulian Patterns:

Home Page | Syllabus | Readings | Lecture Notes | Quiz Site | Assignments


Human Origins in Africa | African Resources | Archaeology Links |
Sept teaching interests | IU Anthropology
Sept research | Sept Home Page

Last updated: 1 November, 2000
URL: http://www.indiana.edu/~origins/teach/p314/p3142000week10.html
Comments: sept@indiana.edu
Copyright Jeanne Sept 1998 : do not cite without permission

IU Bloomington Home Page