African archaeology

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Olduvai Gorge, where some of the earliest hominins are believed to have evolved.

Africa has the longest record of human habitation in the world. The first hominins emerged 6-7 million years ago, and among the earliest anatomically modern human skulls found so far were discovered at Omo Kibish,[1] Jebel Irhoud, and Florisbad.[2][3][4][5]

European archaeology, as well as that of North Africa, is generally divided into the Stone Age (comprising the Lower Paleolithic, the Middle Paleolithic, the Upper Paleolithic, the Mesolithic, and the Neolithic), the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age. For Africa south of the Sahara, African archaeology is classified in a slightly different way, with the Paleolithic generally divided into the Early Stone Age, the Middle Stone Age, and the Later Stone Age.[6] After these three stages come the Pastoral Neolithic, the Iron Age and then later historical periods.

Africa's prehistory has been largely ignored, with the exception of research into early human evolution.[1] However, it is overseen by the PanAfrican Archaeological Association, whose members consist of professional archaeologists from all over Africa.[7]

Early Stone Age Africa[edit]

The Early Stone Age (ESA), which spanned from approximately 2.6 million years ago (mya) - 280,000 years ago (ya), describes a period in African prehistory in which the first stone tools were developed, including both Oldowan and Acheulean.[8] Early sites along the East African Rift include Lomekwi in the Turkana Basin, Kenya, and Olduvai Gorge farther south in modern-day Tanzania. The earliest hominids were discovered in Ethiopia and titled Ardipithecus ramidus. The diverging species of hominin are known as australopithecines and were first discovered in Olduvai. Australopithecines and their fossils include Paranthropus boisei, the most famous being know and “Zinj” or “Nutcracker man” by Mary Leakey, the archaeologist who found it. Another older, famous australopithecine, related to those found at Olduvai Gorge but found approximately 2000 kilometers to the north east in the Awash Valley of Ethiopia, is Lucy, who was discovered by Donald Johanson and his team in 1974.[9]

The earliest relative dating for stone tool use was discovered in 2015, by Sonia Harmand, at Lomekwi 3 in West Turkana, Kenya with stone tools dating to 3.3 million years ago.[10] Prior to this discovery, some of the oldest stone tools were found at Lokalalei 2C in West Turkana, where artifacts exhibiting knapping processes conducted by Australopithecus africanus date to about 2.34 million years ago, marking the beginning of the ESA. 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.[11]

Around a million years later, Homo erectus evolved into a more advanced species and made tools known as the Acheulean handaxes. These handaxes were a multipurpose bifacial technology that remained unchanged for thousands of years. The technology demonstrates an increase in brain development and complexity in Homo erectus, as shown by the increased level of forethought and knowledge of material required for production of the tools.[12] Homo erectus are also associated with the first instances of "modern human living," such as fire, "modern emotions," and art.[13] The earliest evidence for hominins controlling fire is found in Wonderwerk Cave, South Africa.[14] Along with their new technologies, they were also a part of the first "Out of Africa" movement and spread to all parts of the world. This movement took place somewhere around 1.8-0.8 million years ago, where Homo erectus spread out from Africa and into Eurasia.[15] One of the most notable Homo erectus skeletons ever found was that of Nariokotome Boy, who was found near Lake Turkana in Kenya, discovered by Richard Leakey and Kamoya Kimeu. Nariokotome Boy was a teenager when he died, and his skeleton exhibits the first evidence for caring in the archaeological record, because he was cared for through his debilitating scoliosis.[16]

Just recently discovered was a new addition to the line of human ancestors named Homo naledi. Found in Rising Star Cave in South Africa, Homo naledi is undated but has features of both primitive and modern humans.[17]

Middle Stone Age Africa[edit]

The Middle Stone Age (MSA), dating to roughly 280,000 to 40,000 years ago, is characterized by the continuation of hunter-gatherer lifestyles and, as more recently recognized, perhaps the origins of modern human behavior and cognition.[18] Even though hominin species' brains were reorganized and modernized at a fast rate, the behavior of these hominins did not adapt quite as fast. This caused the hominin species to be quite primitive.[19] African hunter-gatherers hunted larger mammals and relied on an assortment of edible plants,[20] both in the grasslands that are now the Sahara desert, and the rain forests of Central Africa.[21] Coastal peoples also subsisted on seafood and numerous middens indicate their diet.[18]

Homo sapiens appear for the first time in the archaeological record around 300-270,000 years ago in Africa.[22][2][3][4][5] 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, 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 Aterian methods and the development of new skills helped these people adapt to new landscapes.[23]

Although still hunter-gatherers, there is evidence that these early humans also actively managed food resources as well as simply harvesting them. 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 ochre as a body decoration and paint, and burial rituals may have been practiced as well.[24]

Evidence of a variety behaviors indicative of Behavioral modernity date to the African Middle Stone age, associated with early Homo sapiens. Abstract imagery, widened subsistence strategies, and other "modern" behaviors have been discovered from that period in Africa, especially South, North, and East Africa. The Blombos Cave site in South Africa, for example, is famous for rectangular slabs of ochre engraved with geometric designs. Using multiple dating techniques, the site was confirmed to be around 77,000 and 100-75,000 years old.[25][26] Ostrich egg shell containers engraved with geometric designs dating to 60,000 years ago were found at Diepkloof, South Africa.[27] Beads and other personal ornamentation have been found from Morocco which might be as much as 130,000 years old; as well, the Cave of Hearths in South Africa has yielded a number of beads dating from significantly prior to 50,000 years ago,.,[28] and shell beads dating to about 75,000 years ago have been found at Blombos Cave, South Africa.[29][30][31]

Specialized projectile weapons as well have been found at various sites in Middle Stone Age Africa, including bone and stone arrowheads at South African sites such as Sibudu Cave (along with an early bone needle also found at Sibudu) dating approximately 60,000-70,000 years ago,[32][33][34][35][36] and bone harpoons at the Central African site of Katanda dating to about 90,000 years ago.[37] Evidence also exists for the systematic heat treating of silcrete stone to increased its flake-ability for the purpose of toolmaking, beginning approximately 164,000 years ago at the South African site of Pinnacle Point and becoming common there for the creation of microlithic tools at about 72,000 years ago.[38][39] Early stone-tipped projectile weapons (a characteristic tool of Homo sapiens), the stone tips of javelins or throwing spears, were discovered in 2013 at the Ethiopian site of Gademotta, and date to around 279,000 years ago.[40]

In 2008, an ochre processing workshop likely for the production of paints was uncovered dating to ca. 100,000 years ago at Blombos Cave, South Africa. Analysis shows that a liquefied pigment-rich mixture was produced and stored in the two abalone shells, and that ochre, bone, charcoal, grindstones and hammer-stones also formed a composite part of the toolkits. Evidence for the complexity of the task includes procuring and combining raw materials from various sources (implying they had a mental template of the process they would follow), possibly using pyrotechnology to facilitate fat extraction from bone, using a probable recipe to produce the compound, and the use of shell containers for mixing and storage for later use.[41][42][43] Modern behaviors, such as the making of shell beads, bone tools and arrows, and the use of ochre pigment, are evident at a Kenyan site by 78,000-67,000 years ago.[44]

Expanding subsistence strategies beyond big-game hunting and the consequential diversity in tool types has been noted as signs of behavioral modernity. A number of South African sites have shown an early reliance on aquatic resources from fish to shellfish. Pinnacle Point, in particular, shows exploitation of marine resources as early as 120,000 years ago, perhaps in response to more arid conditions inland.[45] Establishing a reliance on predictable shellfish deposits, for example, could reduce mobility and facilitate complex social systems and symbolic behavior. Blombos Cave and Site 440 in Sudan both show evidence of fishing as well. Taphonomic change in fish skeletons from Blombos Cave have been interpreted as capture of live fish, clearly an intentional human behavior.[28]

Humans in North Africa (Nazlet Sabaha, Egypt) are known to have dabbled in chert mining, as early as ≈100,000 years ago, for the construction of stone tools.[46][47]

Evidence was found in 2018, dating to about 320,000 years ago, at the Kenyan site of Olorgesailie, of the early emergence of modern behaviors including: long-distance trade networks (involving goods such as obsidian), the use of pigments, and the possible making of projectile points. It is observed by the authors of three 2018 studies on the site, that the evidence of these behaviors is approximately contemporary to the earliest known Homo sapiens fossil remains from Africa (such as at Jebel Irhoud and Florisbad), and they suggest that complex and modern behaviors began in Africa around the time of the emergence of Homo sapiens.[48][49][50]

In 2019, further evidence of early complex projectile weapons in Africa was found at Aduma, Ethiopia dated 80,000-100,000 years ago, in the form of points considered likely to belong to darts delivered by spear throwers.[51]

Later Stone Age Africa[edit]

The Hofmeyr Skull is a specimen of a 36,000-year-old human skull that was found in 1952 near Hofmeyr, South Africa. Osteological analysis of the cranium by the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology indicates that the specimen is morphologically distinct from recent groups in subequatorial Africa, including the local Khoisan populations[citation needed]. The Hofmeyr fossil instead has a very close affinity with other Upper Paleolithic skulls from Europe. Some scientists have interpreted this relationship as being consistent with the Out-of-Africa theory, which hypothesizes that at least some Upper Paleolithic human groups in Africa, Europe and Asia should morphologically resemble each other.[52]

Around 10,000 BCE, African hunter-gatherer societies developed microlith technologies. Composite microlithic tools were useful for harvesting wild grasses and also permitted the production of fine shell and bone fish hooks, which may have allowed for the exploitation of a broader range of food resources. Some of the earliest pottery in Africa has also been found in the Sahara and is associated with hunter/gatherer populations.[53]

In 2013, Iberomaurusian skeletons from the prehistoric sites of Taforalt and Afalou in the Maghreb were analyzed for ancient DNA. All of the specimens belonged to maternal clades associated with either North Africa or the northern and southern Mediterranean littoral, indicating gene flow between these areas since the Epipaleolithic.[54] The ancient Taforalt individuals carried the mtDNA haplogroups U6, H, JT and V, which points to population continuity in the region dating from the Iberomaurusian period.[55]

It appears that pottery was independently invented in sub-Saharan Africa (in Ounjougou, Central Mali) by 9,400 BCE by native hunter-gatherers that had begun to become more sedentary and to intensively gather local wild grains (such as millet).[56]


Cultural developments during the early Neolithic led nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyles to be slowly supplanted by pastoralism in northern Africa.[57] Africa's earliest evidence for domesticated animals comes from the Sahara c. 7000-6000 BCE, and evidence for new cattle herding lifestyles are preserved at both archaeological sites such as Gobero and in Saharan rock art.[58] 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 also spread throughout eastern and southern Africa.[59] The Savanna Pastoral Neolithic and the Elmenteitan are found in East Africa.

In the western Sahel the rise of settled communities occurred largely as a result of the domestication of millet and of sorghum. Archaeology points to sizable urban populations in West Africa later, beginning by the 2nd millennium BCE. Symbiotic trade relations developed before the trans-Saharan trade, in response to the opportunities afforded by north-south diversity in ecosystems across deserts, grasslands, and forests. The agriculturists received salt from the desert nomads. The desert nomads acquired meat and other foods from pastoralists and farmers of the grasslands and from fishermen on the Niger River. The forest-dwellers provided furs and meat.[60]

In West Africa, Dhar Tichitt and Oualata in present-day Mauritania figure prominently among the early urban centers, dated to ~2,000 BCE. About 500 stone settlements litter the region in the former savannah of the Sahara. Its inhabitants fished and grew millet. The ancestors of the Soninke, of the Mandé peoples, may have been responsible for constructing such settlements. Around 300 BCE the region became more desiccated and the settlements began to decline, most likely relocating to Koumbi Saleh.[61] Architectural evidence and the comparison of pottery styles suggest that Dhar Tichitt was related to the subsequent Ghana Empire and Djenné-Djenno cultures (in present-day Mali).[62][63]

Metal-using Africa[edit]

Farming societies in Africa developed after the origins and spread of livestock pastoralism throughout the continent. Likewise, the early use of metallurgy by farming communities 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. Although some details regarding the Bantu expansion are still controversial amongst archaeologists, linguists, and historians, the widespread use of iron does seem to have played a major role in the spread of Bantu farming communities throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Contact and interaction between hunter/gatherer, pastoralist, and incoming farming communities remains an important topic of interest in African archaeology today.

In 2014, ancient DNA analysis of a 2,330-year-old male forager's skeleton in southern Africa found that the specimen belonged to the L0d2c1c mtDNA haplogroup. This maternal clade is today most closely associated with the Ju, a subgroup of the indigenous San people, which points to population continuity in the region.[64] In 2016, a Late Iron Age desiccated mummy from the Tuli region in northern Botswana was also found to belong to haplogroup L0.[65]

In central Nigeria, West Africa, around 1,500 BCE, the Nok culture developed on the Jos Plateau.[66] The Nok people produced lifelike representations in terracotta, including human heads and human figures, elephants, and other animals. By 500 BCE, and possibly a few centuries earlier,[67] they were smelting iron. By 200 AD the Nok culture had vanished. Based on stylistic similarities with the Nok terracottas, the bronze figurines of the Yoruba kingdom of Ife and those of the Bini kingdom of Benin are now[when?] believed[by whom?] to be continuations of the traditions of the earlier Nok culture.[68]

Historical Africa[edit]

Trade with the Near East and Europe led to strong mercantile empires growing such as the Ethiopian kingdom of Axum. Various states and polities also developed in West Africa including Ife, the Kingdom of Benin, Igbo Ukwu, Djenné-Djenno, Ghana Empire, and the Ashanti Empire. Bantu peoples in southern Africa 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.

See also[edit]


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