Archaeology of Sub-Saharan Africa Research Paper

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1. The African Stone Age: A Hard Act To Follow

People evolved in sub-Saharan Africa from a common ancestor with the other African apes about 5 or 7 million years ago. The earliest recognizable artefacts, which are stone tools associated with animal bones, come from a number of sites in east Africa about 2.5 million years ago. The earliest members of our own genus, Homo, date from a little after that time. The earliest claimed evidence for the controlled use of fire and the earliest persuasive bone artefacts come from sites in eastern and southern Africa dated to just before or just after 2 million years ago. Some time before 1 million years ago, a first ‘out of Africa’ expansion took archaic humans across the land bridge into Eurasia. The earliest handaxes, beautiful as well as functional, spread from Africa some time after 1 million years ago. Current opinion is that between a half and a quarter of a million years ago African early Homo populations evolved into our own species, Homo sapiens, whilst relatives in southeastern Asia and in Europe took other directions. Eventually, perhaps 100,000 years ago, a second ‘out of Africa’ movement, or perhaps a series of waves, arguably caused the replacement of archaic humans by modern ones, as Homo sapiens completed the process of global colonization. These early modern people in southern and eastern Africa left behind the earliest evidence for systematic marine food use and substantial early evidence for the manufacture of pigment, presumably for ritual use. If this sounds somewhat ‘earlier than thou,’ it nevertheless underlines the massive contribution of sub-Saharan Africa to the story of human evolution and the emergence of modern behavior.

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John Goodwin effectively began the systematization of sub-Saharan stone age prehistory when, in 1929, along with van Riet Lowe, he published The Stone Age Cultures of South Africa, in which he established the terminological framework still used throughout the continent. He recognized similarities between the stone artefact assemblages in South Africa and Europe, particularly in the earlier phases, but elected to coin a new set of terms, the Earlier, Middle, and Later Stone Ages. His vision was that these major units, broadly equivalent to the Lower, Middle, and Upper Palaeolithic of Europe, could be subdivided into geographically bounded assemblage sets that he called cultures or variants. Whereas the Earlier and Middle Stone Age assemblages closely resembled their European counterparts, the Later Stone Age (LSA) was quite different from the Upper Palaeolithic of Europe. At least one of his cultural constructs, the Wilton culture, became popular as a designation of microlithic Later Stone Age assemblages from the Cape of Good Hope to Cape Horn. After the foundation of the Pan African Congress meetings in the 1940s, which created a structure for French and English speaking archaeologists working in sub-Saharan Africa to better coordinate their efforts, the notion of ‘intermediates’ between Earlier and Middle and between Middle and Later Stone Ages was briefly entertained. These were to contain assemblages that illustrated the technological and typological transitions, but for reasons explained later were unsuccessful.

The most serious attempt to standardize what had become a terminological nightmare was the brave but ineffective set of recommendations of the Burg Wartenstein conference, held in Austria in 1964. This template envisaged a set of hierarchically organized terms (occurrences, phases, industries, and industrial complexes), replacing the older tripartite system of Goodwin’s. It never found much favor and archaeologists seem simply to have moved on from terminological angst, choosing to use older or newer terms informally and to investigate behavior rather than debate the structure of the archaeological record. Significantly, this early obsession with stones as determining materials has been diffused by attention to other materials and other issues.

2. Human Origins

A question of considerable interest is that of whether the archaeological record is an accurate reflection of the distributions of early people. Fossil fragments of the genus Australopithecus (and Ardipithecus) were known only from the sedimentary lake basins of East Africa and the dolomite caverns of South Africa until the discovery of australopithecines from the deserts of Chad. The classic sites of eastern and southern Africa are depositional environments, which might suggest that australopithecines were more widespread but not preserved in more erosional landscapes without such catchments. Chad is certainly a hint of wider distributions. Stone tools, however, are less affected by poor preservational contexts and establish the significance of the lake basins of the African Rift Valley as the focal places in early human technological history.

Mary Leakey’s pioneering archaeology of living floors at Olduvai Gorge in East Africa established that the hand axe containing Acheulean assemblages of the African Earlier Stone Age, which Goodwin had wanted to call the the Stellenbosch culture in the Cape, were preceded by earlier assemblages without such bifaces. With the first potassium argon dates of about 1.8 million years from the base of Bed 1 at Olduvai came the realization of the huge antiquity of stone tool making in Africa. The earliest assemblages, naturally referred to as Oldowan, had a variety of cores, flakes, and rather crudely retouched pieces. Pre-hand axe assemblages are now known to date from as early as 2.5 million years ago, at a number of sites in the stratified lake basin deposits of the East African Rift Valley. The assemblages vary, at least in part, with the variable nature of the stone raw materials available. Very little has yet emerged as to the likely precedents of these Oldowan assemblages, but presumably a long period of more informal tool use and modification precedes the localized concentrations now claimed as the earliest sites. By comparison with recently recorded chimp tool uses, we might expect that the changes in behavior which led to the localization of tool making debris in specific places is what is actually reflected in the archaeological record. Initial experiments with stone tool making must substantially predate 2.5 million years, but may never be recognized.

The earliest assemblages with recognizable bifaces, characteristically both roughly teardrop shaped hand axes and blade ended cleavers, date to about 1.6 million years or so, soon after the earliest appearance of the fossil remains of what used to be African Homo erectus, more recently termed Homo rudolfensis. These are now universally referred to as Acheulean assemblages, named after the much later, though discovered earlier, French sites, in contradiction to Goodwin’s wishes. Three remarkable aspects of these occurrences have continued to puzzle archaeologists. First is the observation that hand axes are extremely widespread, from the river gravels of the Somme and Thames in England, through the beach terraces of the Mediterranean to the lakeside camps of the East African Rift and on to the caves and coastal dunes of the Cape. A spatial distribution of several million square kilometers and a time span of more than a million years implies a broad functionality and a lasting usefulness, a veritable Palaeolithic Swiss army knife. Suggestions as to the uses of hand axes have included digging up underground plant foods, butchering animal carcasses, implementation as missiles, and suspension as parts of animal snares. This issue is not independent of the other two enduring characteristics of these often beautifully made tools.

Many archaeologists have noted that in many, but not all, cases hand axes appear to have been flaked beyond the apparent functional requirements. Indeed the pursuit of symmetry and regularity of outline is undeniable in many examples, raising the question of whether the objects are functional or works of art, or both. Associated with this observation is the remarkable number of such hand axes at many, but again not all, sites. At Olorgesailie and other East African sites, and particularly at the hand axe localities along the Orange River in South Africa, there are thousands, and in some cases millions of bifacially worked hand axes. Even allowing for the fact that such sites are obvious palimpsests, there seems to be a case for questioning the production strategy of artefacts that often appear to the casual observer to be still relatively usable. Why did people put so much energy into the finishing of such pieces, and why did they make so many? A recent suggestion has been that both of these characteristics imply that the making of the tool has to be seen as just as important as its use. Like the tail of the peacock, the ability to lavish attention onto the making of a hand axe, and then discard it after little use, must imply a set of evolutionary capacities to impress the opposite sex. We cannot say who was making and who was impressed, but the assumption of many archaeologists is that men made and women gasped.

There is little doubt that all developments in human genetic evolution and technological history prior to about 1.8 million years ago happened in Africa. The earliest non-African sites at Dmanisi in Georgia and Ubeidiya in Israel are not Acheulean assemblages. Although not strictly a matter of African prehistory, the absence of the hand axe and cleaver, and hence the designation Acheulean, from southeast Asian stone tool assemblages, has caused much comment. If it is confirmed that the first ‘out of Africa’ movement preceded the invention of these bifacial forms, and if it is further confirmed that genetic exchange between southeast Asia and Africa has been minimal after this movement, then a long independent trajectory for both hominid evolution and artefactual tradition in southeast Asia becomes plausible. By contrast, the artefactual records of Europe, southwestern Asia, and Africa remain rather tightly linked throughout most of the Pleistocene.

In an intriguing cycle of argument and counter argument, it now appears that Raymond Dart’s belief that australopithecines or early members of the Homo lineage were both firemakers and bone tool makers may have some support. Dart’s original ideas were based on his work at Makapansgat, South Africa, which he initially believed to be a place where australopithecines lived. The hearths, however, turned out to be manganese staining. C. K. (Bob) Brain, in an inspiring programme of taphonomic, experimental, and ethno-archaeological research, showed that the complex stratigraphies of the (then) Transvaal dolomite caves were places where early hominids died and were deposited by predators. Patterns in associated faunal remains were produced by the actions of predators and other forces on bones of variable density, not by tool makers’ choices. It is ironic, then, that working at the stratigraphically better understood site of Swartkrans, Brain later began to record the existence there of evidence for both fire and bone tools. It should be recognized that the Swartkrans evidence is much later than that claimed by Dart from Makapansgat, and that the argument is much more robust, if still somewhat vulnerable. The current claims from Swartkrans are that over a hundred small pointed bones were used for excavating underground plant foods and that charred bones among the faunal remains reflect the controlled use of fire, both claims for behaviors predating 1 million years.

3. Regionality And The Appearance Of Modern Humans

The transition from Earlier to Middle Stone Age assemblages is poorly understood, in part because it happened much before radiocarbon dating became useful and after the time period best suited to potassium argon dating. Many Middle Stone Age (MSA) sites are open sites difficult, in any case, to date. Most archaeologists presume that the assemblages without hand axes, characterized by some facetted platform flakes and radial and Levallois cores, first appear about 250,000 years ago, but there is much room for debate. The decision no longer to make hand axes or cleavers from about this time may signal the invention and dissemination of methods of mounting and hafting stone points onto wooden shafts. Assuming this required smaller stone components, we might interpret the many kinds of points, unretouched, unifacial, bifacial, leaf-shaped, hollow-based, tanged and serrated, as versions of the spear point. As Desmond Clark pointed out some time ago, regionalization of point ‘style’ characterizes the MSA and distinguishes it from the preceding Earlier Stone Age (ESA), where change was slow and dissemination of form more encompassing. For some archaeologists this regionality within the MSA, along with the more rapid replacement of one form by another, is a mark of symbolic storage, because it reflects decisions by presumably identity-conscious groups, choices that reflect not function but style, a first indication of ‘them’ and ‘us.’

The most dramatic development in thinking about the African Middle Stone Age has been its remarkable rise, in Desmond Clark’s words, ‘from peripheral to paramount.’ In the late 1960s, bolstered by a rather naive belief in the accuracy of some of the earliest radiocarbon results obtained, MSA assemblages were thought to be contemporary with Upper Palaeolithic assemblages in Europe. Because of the obvious similarities between MSA and Middle, rather than Upper, Palaeolithic stone tool technologies and types, this was taken as a reflection of Africa’s backwardness in progressing along the (presumed standard) toolmaking trajectory. It was also wrongly believed at that time that the Kabwe (formerly Broken Hill) cranium and the Saldanha calvarium were ‘African neanderthalers.’ After Vogel and Beaumont began to doubt the radiocarbon ‘dates’ for MSA assemblages, new, more experimental dating techniques, such as luminescence and ESR dating, became available. These have shown that almost all of the MSA is beyond the range of radiocarbon dating and confirmed the rough contemporaneity of Middle Palaeolithic and Middle Stone Age. We should also not underestimate the impact of the genetic work on mitochondrial DNA of the mid 1980s on archaeologists’ thinking about the age of the MSA and the significance of the morphology of associated hominid remains. The ‘out of Africa’ genetic model, a reevaluation of the modernity of MSA hominids and new dating assessments for African MSA sites have transformed our understanding of the origins of anatomically and behaviorally modern people. In this process, Africa has emerged as paramount, the likely source area of modernity in both senses.

Central to this change of thinking has been the set of assemblages known to John Goodwin and referred to by him as Howiesons Poort. These formed part of the short-lived notion of a ‘second intermediate’ between the Middle and Later Stone Ages, but have been shown repeatedly to lie stratigraphically within the suite of MSA assemblages, most effectively at Klasies River (South Africa) main site. Howiesons Poort assemblages are MSA in that they contain radial cores and sub-triangular flakes with facetted platforms, but they have an interesting set of novel characters that make them, in some estimations, precocious manifestations of later stone tool making patterns. Unlike assemblages above and below them, for example, there is a tendency for tool makers to prefer finer grained rocks and to manufacture substantial numbers of blades, some of them punch-struck, from them. There are also many backed pieces, including segments, some of them microlithic, trapezes and truncated blades, and in some assemblages, burins. These assemblages are increasingly well dated to beyond 60,000 years, which has interesting implications for these ‘Upper Palaeolithic-like’ characteristics, which seem to appear in Europe, along with unquestionably modern people, some 20,000 or more years later.

The African Middle Stone Age, but not specifically the Howiesons Poort, is increasingly viewed as the product of anatomically modern people. From Dar es Soltan in the north to Klasies River main site in the south, MSA hominids are anatomically modern, as indeed, or nearly so, are their contemporaries at Middle Palaeolithic sites in southwest Asia. Klasies River main site is, in fact, the most persuasive example of a set of associations that constitute anatomical and behavioral modernity. A deep depositional pile that is unquestionably a shell midden, associations of foodwaste and stone tools with hearths, well dated by radiometric dates and faunal observations to Marine Isotope Stages 5 and 4, and with excellent stratigraphic associations of MSA artefacts, including a Howiesons Poort component, with enough hominid fragments to be sure of a modern morphology, sets the standard for claims about modernity. Elsewhere in southern Africa, MSA assemblages are associated with abundant, clearly utilized ochre, bone tools, and decorated pieces of ostrich eggshell. So far it is not clear whether the relative paucity of these kinds of associations elsewhere in Africa is due to incomplete survey, poor preservation or the geography of ancient innovations. Claims for MSA manufacture of bone harpoons at Katanda would, if confirmed, support the innovative character of African MSA people.

Why, we may wonder, has Africa become so clearly paramount, so definitively not peripheral in the evolutionary history of modern people. One possibility is the accumulating evidence for the necessary consumption of marine and freshwater foods as the nutritional substrate for intellectual advances. Rather than being a consequence of increased intelligence, something that modern people did, the regular gathering of shellfish and other marine and freshwater organisms, appears to be essential if people were to acquire the structural lipids necessary to build a bigger brain. Coastal, stream, and lakeside site locations have been the pattern in Africa since the time of early hominids: it may be as much the available foods as the accessibility of water that had significance. Because the earliest shell middens are located along the shores of the Mediterranean-type terrestrial ecosystems at the northern and southern extremities of Africa, it is from here that the surge to modernity may have been fueled.

4. The Survival Of Hunting And Gathering

Our understanding of the transition from Middle to Later Stone Age (LSA) is complicated by poor dating resolution, highly episodic site occupations, and by the fact that it apparently happened when much of the central parts of northern and southern Africa were even more arid than they are today. Additionally, at this time, approximately 20,000 to 50,000 years ago, the mean sea level was lower and some of the most attractive parts of the subcontinent were the exposed continental shelves, now lost to study by the rise in sea level. One interesting consequence of a lengthy expansion during Marine Isotope Stages 2, 3, and 4 of the Kalahari and Sahara arid zones, is the probable reduction in genetic exchanges between subtropical African populations and their contemporaries in the two Mediterranean-type ecosystems to the north and south. It was perhaps during this time, after the emergence and expansion out of Africa of modern people, that the current geographic patterns in African human phenotypes became established. Apparently supporting this projection is the increasingly regionally differentiated and localized nature of the African LSA.

Goodwin was correct in recognizing little similarity between the African LSA as a whole and the European Upper Palaeolithic. The transition from the MSA to the LSA technologically involved the abandonment of radial and Levallois core techniques and the focusing on small bipolar and unipolar cores that had already appeared in the MSA. It may have happened at different times in different parts of the sub-continent, something that now appears likely in the European transition from Middle to Upper Palaeolithic as well. Microlithic assemblages appear much earlier in Kenya than in southern Africa, but robust regional chronological patterns are yet to emerge.

Certainly by 20,000 years ago the sub-continent is widely but patchily occupied by hunter gatherers making a variety of (mostly) microlithic tools on fine grained raw materials and, where preservation is good, leaving behind tools of ostrich eggshell, bone and other organic raw materials that loosely resemble those of the recent ethnographic past. There are, however, many important technological, social, and demographic changes within the last 20,000 years, especially as pastoralism and farming began to spread slowly and irregularly through the ecosystems of sub-Saharan Africa.

An important component of the heritage of LSA hunter–gatherers is the large corpus of paintings and engravings, commonly referred to as rock art. Throughout southern and eastern Africa there are images made by farming people, usually in white paint, often presenting geometric forms or images of colonial times and almost always made with the finger. Easily distinguished from these is a tradition that extends south from Zambia, Zimbabwe, northern Botswana, and Namibia to the Cape, characterized by relatively naturalistic fine line images of people and animals, in places overlain by handprints. These paintings and engravings may have begun to appear as early as 25,000 years ago, were certainly widespread by 10,000 years ago and were still being made in the century before last. From the research of Partricia Vinnicombe and David LewisWilliams, we can now relate the images to the world view of surviving San hunter–gatherers and their ancestors. A particularly important set of reference material has been the texts recorded by Wilhelm Bleek and his sister in law Lucy Lloyd in the 1870s and related to them by a group of Xam San informants from the South African interior. Recent Kalahari hunter–gatherers do not themselves paint or engrave, but clearly subscribed to the same cosmology as the now extinct Xam. A point of some interest is the corpus of Tanzanian fine line images that resemble those from much further south. There is here an artistic parallel to the enigma of ‘click’ languages in more or less the same part of eastern Africa, also isolated from a host of such languages in the south. No doubt there is still much to learn about the history of the interface between Khoesan people and their traditions with other Africans to the north.

There is a significant irony in the discovery of Africa’s paramount role in the story of human evolution. Because European science gave rise to the intellectual discipline of archaeology, European scientists have always been searching for origins in Europe. Gradually and serially these have failed, to be replaced by a growing realization of the African contribution. But it is tragic that with few exceptions this legacy of African prehistory has been revealed by people of European ancestry, albeit ones with a strong sense of belonging to Africa. But then, in the longer view, we are all Africans.


  1. Goodwin A J H, van Riet Lowe C 1929 The Stone Age cultures of South Africa. Annals of the South African Museum. 27: 1–289
  2. Klein R G 1999 The Human Career, 2nd edn. Chicago University Press, Chicago
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