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.
Pliocene and Pleistocene Africa
The earliest archaeological evidence for human behavior found anywhere in the world is from eastern Africa. Early sites along the East African Rift include Lomekwi in the Turkana Basin and Olduvai Gorge farther south 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, Homo erectus produced more advanced Acheulian handaxes. Pioneering archaeological research on this time period was conducted by scholars including Louis Leakey and Mary Leakey, and more recent research has centered on the earliest development of tool use, fire and diet in hominin societies.
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. 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 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
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. 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.
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 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. p. 180. ISBN 978-0-521-61265-4.
- 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. doi:10.1006/jhev.2000.0435.
- 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. doi:10.1006/jaar.1997.0309. Retrieved 30 September 2014.
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- 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" (PDF). Journal of World Prehistory 16 (2): 99–143. doi:10.1023/A:1019954903395.
- African Archaeology – African Archaeology : a web directory on Africa.
- Journal of African Archaeology
- African Archaeological Review
- – Excavations at Karkarichinkat Nord and Sud
- 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