Middle Stone Age

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This article is about the term as applied to African prehistory. See Mesolithic for the "middle" period of the Stone Age in general. See Middle Paleolithic for the "middle" part of the "Old 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]

Middle Stone Age artifacts[edit]

There is today 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[4] as evidence of making weapons with compound heat treated gluing technology.[5]

The stone tool technology in use during the Middle Stone Age shows a mosaic of techniques. The Levallois prepared core technology (also widely used by Neanderthals during the European Middle Palaeolithic) is seen at many sites throughout the period.[6] However, the use of blades (associated mainly with the Upper Palaeolithic in Europe) is seen at many sites as well.[1] It may have been used from the transition from the Early Stone Age to the Middle Stone Age onwards.[7] Finally, during the later part of the Middle Stone Age, microlithic technologies, aimed at producing replaceable components of composite hafted tools is seen from at least 70 ka at sites such as Pinnacle Point and Diepkloof Rock Shelter in South Africa.[8][9]

Early development[edit]

During the Acheulian to MSA transition the Middle Awash valley of Ethiopia and the Central Rift Valley of Kenya constituted a major center for behavioural innovation.[10] 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 forager. 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 indicate a suite of new behaviours [2][11] and Barham [12] believes that syntactic language was one behavioural aspect that allowed these MSA people to settle in the tropical forests of the Congo. A high level of technical competence is also indicated for the c. 280 ka blades recovered from the Kapthurin Formation, Kenya.[13]

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. South African cave sites have also contributed to the data regarding this shift with accurate dating due to deposits of volcanic ash, which have allowed these sites to be dated to between 999 and 49 thousand years ago. 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.[14]

Human change and replacement[edit]

By c. 80 – 50 ka MSA humans spread out of Africa to Asia, Australia and Europe,[15] perhaps only in small numbers initially,[16] but by c. 30 ka they had replaced Neanderthals and Homo erectus. 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.[17]

Behaviour and cognitive innovation[edit]

The development of modern behaviour in the MSA is likely to have been a vast and complex series of events that developed in a mosaic way.[18] Some have argued for discontinuity such as Richard G. Klein,[19] while others, such as 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.[20] In the 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 (2000:492), 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]

Abstract Thinking[edit]

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.[21] This requires abstract thought, one of the hallmarks of modern human behavior.[1]

Planning Depth[edit]

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.


Symbolic Behavior[edit]

Complex cognition[edit]

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.[22] This includes the oldest confirmed evidence for the utilisation 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 (1998) reports MSA people were formidable hunters and that their social behaviour patterns approached those of modern humans. Deacon [23] 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 behaviour. A family basis to foraging groups, colour symbolism and the reciprocal exchange of artefacts and the formal organization of living space are, he suggests, further evidence for modernity in the MSA.

Lyn Wadley has 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[5] · .[24]

Evidence for language[edit]

Ochre is reported from some early MSA sites, for example at Kapthurin and Twin Rivers, and is common after c. 100 ka.[25] Barham [26] argues that even if some of this ochre was used in a symbolic, colour 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.[27] Sophisticated bone harpoons manufactured at Katanda, West Africa at c. 90 ka[28] and bone tools from Blombos Cave dated at c. 77 ka[29] 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.[30] 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.[30]

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[31] providing the means for semantically unbounded discourse.[32] Syntax would have played a key role in this process and its full adoption could have been a crucial element of the symbolic behavioural package in the MSA.[33]

Brain change[edit]

Although the advent of anatomical physical modernity cannot confidently be linked with palaeoneurological change,[34] it does seem probable that hominid brains evolved through the same selection processes as other body parts.[35] Genes that promoted a capacity for symbolism may have been selected suggesting the foundations for symbolic culture may well be grounded in biology but behaviour 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 argues that human brain expansion by increasing the prefrontal cortex would have created a brain capable of symbolizing its previously nonsymbolic cognition, and that this process, slow to begin with, increasingly accelerated during the last 100,000 years.[36] Symbolically mediated behaviour may have feedback upon this process by creating greater ability to manufacture symbolic artifacts and social networks that were organized upon them.

Pattern of change[edit]

Artifact technology during the Middle Stone Age shows a pattern of innovation followed by disappearance. This occurs to technology such as the manufacture of shell beads,[37] arrows and hide working tools including needles[4] and gluing technology.[5] This has been suggested to question 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".[4]p. 1577


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.[38] Still Bay and Howieson's Poort contain variable tool technologies.[39] 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.[3]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e McBrearty S, Brooks A. (2000). The revolution that wasn't: A new interpretation of the origin of modern human behaviour. Journal of Human Evolution, 39:453–563. doi:10.1006/jhev.2000.0435
  2. ^ a b c d Herries 2011
  3. ^ a b d'Errico, Francesco; Banks, William E. (2013). "Identifying Mechanisms behind Middle Paleolithic and Middle Stone Age Cultural Trajectories". Current Anthropology. 
  4. ^ a b c Backwell L, d'Errico F, Wadley L.(2008). Middle Stone Age bone tools from the Howiesons Poort layers, Sibudu Cave, South Africa. Journal of Archaeological Science, 35:1566–1580. doi:10.1016/j.jas.2007.11.006
  5. ^ a b c Wadley L, Hodgskiss T, Grant M. (2009). Implications for complex cognition from the hafting of tools with compound adhesives in the Middle Stone Age, South Africa. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 106:9590–9594 doi:10.1073/pnas.0900957106 PMID 19433786
  6. ^ Shea, J. (2011) Homo sapiens is as Homo sapiens was. Current Anthropology, 52:1–35. doi:10.1086/658067
  7. ^ Porat N, Chazan M, Grün R, Aubert M, Eisenman V, Horwitz LK. (2010). New radiometric ages for the Fauresmith industry from Kathu Pan, southern Africa: Implications for the Earlier to Middle Stone Age transition. Journal of Archaeological Science, 39:453–563. doi:10.1016/j.jas.2009.09.038
  8. ^ Rigaud J-P, Texier P-J, Parkington J, Poggenpoel C. (206). Le mobilier Stillbay et Howiesons Poort de l'abri Diepkloof. La chronologie du Middle Stone Age sud-africain et ses implications. Comptes Rendus Palevol, 5:839–849. doi:10.1016/j.crpv.2006.02.003,
  9. ^ Brown K, Marean CW, Jacobs Z, Schoville BJ, Oestmo S, Fisher EC, Bernatchez J, Karkanas P, Matthews T. (2012). An early and enduring advanced technology originating 71,000 years ago in South Africa. Nature, 491:590–593. doi:10.1038/nature11660
  10. ^ Brooks 2006
  11. ^ Barham 2002a
  12. ^ 2001:70
  13. ^ Deino and McBrearty, 2002
  14. ^ Stahl, Ann B. (2004). African Archaeology: A Critical Introduction. New Jersey: Wiley. p. 93. ISBN 1405101555. 
  15. ^ Mellars 2006
  16. ^ Manica et al. 2007
  17. ^ Manica et al. 2007:346
  18. ^ cf. Chase and Dibble 1990; Foley and Lahr 1997, 2003; Gibson 1996; Renfrew 1996; Deacon 2001; Henshilwood and Marean 2003
  19. ^ Klein, R. G., (2000). Archaeology and the evolution of human behavior. Evolutionary Anthropology 9: 17–36.
  20. ^ Tryon, Christian A.; Faith, J. Tyler (2013). "Variability in the Middle Stone Age of Eastern Africa". Current Anthropology. 
  21. ^ Lombard, Marlize (2012). "Thinking through the Middle Stone Age of sub-Saharan Africa". Quarternary International 270: 140–155. 
  22. ^ Marean et al 2007
  23. ^ 2001:6
  24. ^ Wynn T. (2009). Hafted spears and the archaeology of mind.Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 106:9544–9545 PMID 19506246
  25. ^ Watts, I. (2002). Ochre in the Middle Stone Age of southern Africa: ritualized display or hide preservative? South African Archaeological Bulletin 57: 64–74.
  26. ^ Barham, L. S. (2002). Systematic pigment use in the Middle Pleistocene of south central Africa. Current Anthropology 31(1): 181–190.
  27. ^ e.g. Klein 2000; Henshilwood et al. 2001b
  28. ^ Yellen et al. 1995; Brooks et al. 1995
  29. ^ Henshilwood et al. 2001b
  30. ^ a b Marwick, Ben (2003). "Pleistocene Exchange Networks as Evidence for the Evolution of Language". Cambridge Archaeological Journal 13 (1): 67–81. 
  31. ^ Richerson and Boyd 1998
  32. ^ Rappaport 1999
  33. ^ Bickerton 2003
  34. ^ Holloway 1996
  35. ^ Gabora 2001
  36. ^ Skoyles JR. Sagan D. (2002) Up from Dragons: The evolution of intelligence. McGraw-Hill.
  37. ^ d'Errico F, Vanhaeren M, Wadley L. (2008). Possible shell beads from the Middle Stone Age layers of Sibudu Cave, South Africa. Journal of Archaeological Science, 35: 2675–2685. doi:10.1016/j.jas.2008.04.023
  38. ^ Henshilwood, Christopher S.; d'Errico, Francesco; Marean, Curtis W.; Milo, Richard G.; Yates, Royden (2001). "An early bone tool industry from the Middle Stone Age at Blombos Cave, South Africa: implications for the origins of modern human behaviour, symbolism and language.". Journal of Human Evolution. 
  39. ^ Henshilwood, Christopher S.; Dubreuil, Benoit (2011). "The Still Bay and Howiesons Poort, 77-59 ka: Symbolic Material Culture and the Evolution of the Mind during the African Middle Stone Age". Current Anthropology. 

[1]== Bibliography ==

  1. ^ Marean, Curtis W.; Assefa, Zelalem (2004). "The Middle and Upper Pleistocene African Record for the Biological and Behavioral Origins of Modern Humans". In Stahl, Ann B. African Archaeology: A Critical Introduction. New Jersey: Wiley-Blackwell. pp. 93–129. ISBN 978-1-4051-0156-1.