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.
European archaeology is generally divided into the Stone Age (comprising the Lower Paleolithic, the Middle Paleolithic, and the Upper Paleolithic), the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age. 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. 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. However, it is overseen by the PanAfrican Archaeological Association, whose members consist of professional archaeologists from all over Africa.
Early Stone Age Africa
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. 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.
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. 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.
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. Homo erectus are also associated with the first instances of "modern human living," such as fire, "modern emotions," and art. The earliest evidence for hominins controlling fire is found in Wonderwerk Cave, South Africa. 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. 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.
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.
Middle Stone Age Africa
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. 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. African hunter-gatherers hunted larger mammals and relied on an assortment of edible plants, both in the grasslands that are now the Sahara desert, and the rain forests of Central Africa. Coastal peoples also subsisted on seafood and numerous middens indicate their diet.
Homo sapiens appear for the first time in the archaeological record around 200,000 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, 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.
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.
Later Stone Age Africa
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. 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.
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.
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. 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.
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 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. 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.
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. In 2016, a Late Iron Age desiccated mummy from the Tuli region in northern Botswana was also found to belong to haplogroup L0.
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.
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