The continent of Africa has the longest record of human activity of any part of the world and along with its geographical extent, it contains an enormous archaeological resource. Scholars have studied Egyptology for centuries but archaeologists have only paid serious attention to the rest of the continent in more recent times.
Pliocene and Pleistocene Africa
The earliest evidence of archaeological activity anywhere comes from the East African Rift such as Olduvai Gorge in modern-day Tanzania. It is thought that the earliest hominids evolved in Olduvai or somewhere similar around 4 million years ago. They are known as australopithecines and fossils of them include the famous Lucy. The first crude Oldowan stone tools, used as the beginning marker of the Early Stone Age, produced there were made as long as 2.5 million years ago by the later Homo habilis, but by this time tool-making had demonstrated a well-developed understanding with respect to the mechanics of flaking on the part of homo habilis, suggesting a potential earlier period of tool-making. Incorporation of tools provided early hominins the ability to respond to changes more readily outside of the immediate needs of daily-life and extended adaptability behavioral patterns into long term trends experienced over generations. Around a million years later, Oldowan and then Acheulian industries produced more advanced handaxes made by homo erectus. Archaeological study of this era was pioneered by people such as Louis Leakey and Mary Leakey and has centered on the earliest development of tool use, fire and diet in hominid societies. Sites such as Kalambo Falls have produced well-preserved evidence of this activity.
Middle Stone Age
The Middle Stone Age (MSA), dating to roughly 280,000 to 40,000 years ago, is characterized by the continuation of hunter-gatherer lifestyles were, as more recently recognized, perhaps the origins of modern human behavior and cognition. African hunter-gatherers hunted larger mammals and relied on an assortment of edible plants. The area that is now the Sahara desert was open grassland and while it is often assumed that early humans preferred this plains environment to the rainforests in the center, it must be borne in mind that preservation of remains and accessibility of sites is better in drier areas and the record from areas now covered with rainforest is almost nonexistent. Coastal peoples also existed on seafood and numerous middens indicate their diet.
Homo sapiens appear for the first time in the archaeological record around 100,000 BCE in Africa. They soon developed a more advanced method of flint tool manufacture involving striking flakes from a prepared core. This permitted more control over the size and shape of finished tool and led to the development of composite tools; that is, projectile points and scrapers, which could be hafted onto spears, arrows or handles. In turn, this technology permitted more efficient hunting such as that demonstrated by the Aterian industry. It was during the late Middle Pleistocene that many groups began to migrate away from eastern Africa, especially southward. Technological improvements such as Arterian methods and the development of skills that helped adapt these people to new landscapes helped the early hominids settle the diverse lands.
Although still hunter-gatherers, there is evidence that these early humans also actively managed the food resource as well as simply harvesting it. The jungles of the Congo Basin were first occupied around this time; different conditions and diet there produced recognizably different behaviors and tool types. There are also the earliest signs of art appearing through the use of ocher as a body decoration and paint and burial rituals may have been practiced.
Later Stone Age Africa
Around 10,000 BCE, African societies developed microlith technology which permitted even finer flint tools that could be mounted in rows on a handle. Such a tool was useful for harvesting wild grasses and also permitted fine shell and bone fish hooks, further varying diet. Some of the earliest pottery in Africa has been found in the Sahara and is associated with hunter/gatherer populations. Cultural developments during the early Neolithic led nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyles to be slowly supplanted by pastoralism in northern Africa. Africa's earliest evidence for domesticated animals comes from the north of the continent, in around 7000-6000 BCE, and new herding lifestyles are preserved in the images of Saharan rock art and the archaeological record of sites within the Sahara. As the Sahara increased in size due to aridification, early pastoralists migrated south and eastwards into the Niger and Nile valleys, bringing with them herding practices that would spread throughout Eastern and Southern Africa. Interactions between hunter-gatherer, pastoral, and later agricultural populations contributed to the spread of mixed lifestyles and co-dependence across the continent.
Wheat and barley, sheep and goats were quickly adopted from Asia by African farmers but the early use of metalworking was not developed independently in Africa until around 3000 BCE. Pockets of iron usage appeared in subsequent millennia but metal did not supplant stone in the south of the continent until around 500 BCE when both iron and copper spread southwards through the continent, reaching the Cape around 200 CE. The widespread use of iron revolutionized the Bantu farming communities who drove out the remaining hunter-gatherer societies they encountered as they expanded to farm wider areas of savanna The technologically superior Bantu spread across southern Africa and became rich and powerful, producing iron for tools and weapons in large, industrial quantities.
Trade with the Near East and Europe led to strong mercantile empires growing such as the Ethiopian kingdom of Axum. The Bantu people built the impressive site of Great Zimbabwe between the 10th and 15th centuries CE. The north of the continent had close cultural and economic ties with the Classical and medieval Mediterranean. Cattle herding became important in the Horn of Africa and huge earthwork enclosures were built to corral the animals. The people of Christian Ethiopia produced impressive rock-cut monolithic churches such as that of St George at Lalibela during the 13th century and the first Portuguese forts appeared soon after this, penetrating as far south as Zambia.
- Barham, Lawrence; Mitchell, Peter (2008). The First Africans: African Archaeology from the Earliest Toolmakers to Most Recent Foragers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 157. ISBN 9780521612654.
- Barham, Lawrence; Mitchell, Peter (2008). The First Africans: African Archaeology from the Earliest Toolmakers to Most Recent Foragers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 180. ISBN 9780521612654.
- McBrearty, Sally; Brooks, Alison (2000). "The revolution that wasn't: a new interpretation of the origin of modern human behavior". Journal of Human Evolution 39: 453–563.
- Marean, Curtis (September 1997). "Hunter–Gatherer Foraging Strategies in Tropical Grasslands: Model Building and Testing in the East African Middle and Later Stone Age". Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 16 (3): 196 Extra
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- McBrearty, Sally; Brooks, Alison (2000). "The revolution that wasn't: a new interpretation of the origin of modern human behavior.". Journal of Human Evolution 39 (5): 453–563. Retrieved 29 September 2014.
- Barham, Lawrence; Mitchell, Peter (2008). The First Africans. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 341–344. ISBN 978-0-521-61265-4.
- Barham, Lawrence; Mitchell, Peter (2008). The First Africans: African Archaeology from the Earliest Toolmakers to Most Recent Foragers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 344–345, 360–361.
- Barham, Lawrence; Mitchell, Peter (2008). The First Africans: African Archaeology from the Earliest Toolmakers to Most Recent Foragers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 341–344.
- Marshall, Fiona; Hildebrand, Elisabeth (2002). "Cattle before crops: the beginnings of food production in Africa". Journal of World Prehistory 16 (2): 99–143.
- Barham, Lawrence; Mitchell, Peter (2008). The First Africans: African Archaeology from the Earliest Toolmakers to Most Recent Foragers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 360–362.
- African Archaeology - African Archaeology : a web directory on Africa.
- Journal of African Archaeology
- African Archaeological Review
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- Why did modern human populations disperse from Africa ca. 60,000 years ago? A new model -- Mellars, 10.1073/pnas.0510792103 -- Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences