History Files


African Kingdoms





Early Cultures IndexEarly Africa

The pre-history of Africa contains a far longer period of human habitation than any other area on Earth, thanks to it being the cradle of humankind's evolution. Much of this pre-history involves a great deal of uncertainty in which small windows of opportunity to view events can be gained through archaeology. Masses of material are found each year by archaeologists, and a system was long ago needed to help organise all these findings (especially those that flourished after around 60,000-40,000 BC, when humans in Africa began exhibiting a noticeable progression towards eventual civilisation). The system that evolved in the early twentieth century was one that involved cultures, with each culture being defined by distinct similarities in burials, settlements, technology, or objects in space and time. Archaeological cultures remain the framework for global prehistory.

These cultures are defined on the basis of pot sherds, grave types, architecture, and other material remains. They are meant to capture and define regional variation within a broad sweep of generally similar artefacts. They show the progress of cultural advancement, where such advancement usually means replacing one culture with another to highlight a marked progression. This practice tends to result in a profusion of cultural names, some of which refer to the same culture but which bear different names when they cut across modern national borders. Every attempt has been made here to combine different cultural names that refer to the same culture. The relationship between the archaeological cultures listed here and the living cultures which they represent may seem tenuous, but every attempt has also been made to link, where possible, perceived social and linguistic cultures with their matching archaeological cultures. The social and linguistic fields are more theoretical than the archaeological ones, and there is resistance on both sides by academics when it comes to accepting the other, but recent progress has shown that both disciplines can work well together.

Prehistory IndexThe earliest cultures are perhaps the easiest to catalogue and also amongst the most frustrating, the latter due to the relatively small number of artefacts (and also population figures) left behind to provide evidence of existence. These early cultures include the Acheulian, a virtually universal human industry which saw basic stone tools used across Africa, Europe, and Central Asia. Later Upper Palaeolithic cultures (the late Old Stone Age) are especially interesting as they chart human progress after around 25,000 BC, roughly around the time at which the most recent Ice Age was building to a peak across Europe and Central Asia (see the 'Prehistoric World' index for information on pre-modern human Earth, via the link on the right).

Cataloguing the vast range of human cultures is a complex process. It starts off reasonably easily, with the result that most early cultures can be included on this page. As cultures become more numerous, and rival cultures spring up in different regions at the same time, listing them on one page becomes more complicated. Care has been taken to log rival and neighbouring cultures in each entry but, after a certain point, when the cultures become so regional that they can be located almost entirely within the borders of a single modern nation, then they will be shown in the relevant page rather than here. The easiest way to view it all is as the roots of a tree, with the main trunk starting here and heading down through the page (ie. into the soil) and the ever-smaller roots forking outwards to link into other pages.

(Additional information from A Genetic Signal of Central European Celtic Ancestry, David K Faux, and Investigating Archaeological Cultures: Material Culture, Variability, and Transmission, Benjamin W Roberts & Marc Vander Linden (Eds).)

Australopithecus afarensis

Early Cultures IndexPalaeolithic Cultures (Lower & Middle Palaeolithic)
c.2,500,000 BC - 100,000 BC
Incorporating the Acheulian, Karari, & Oldowan/Developed Oldowan Industries

FeatureThe first truly recognisable human cultures of the Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age) developed out of several tool-making industries of the Lower & Middle Palaeolithic (the first and second of three periods of the Old Stone Age) between one and-a-half million years ago and about 100,000 years ago. The oldest of these industries, the Oldowan, actually begins in the Pliocene, around two and-a-half million years ago and lasts until about 1.7 million years ago. The name comes from Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, which is where some of the earliest stone tools were found by archaeologists (an older name for this industry's appearance in Europe was the Abbevillian, but this is no longer used). The Oldowan was the first true human culture of any kind, and is universally applied to all human-type finds of the Pliocene, almost until its very end. At this time the hominid ancestors of modern humans were being forced to adapt to new conditions. Climate change chilled and dried out Africa, greatly reducing the formerly vast belts of forest (the Hominid Chronology covers this and the appearance of several types of hominid in more detail - see link, right). The planet was heading towards the Ice Ages that were soon to follow. During this period and several stages of early human development, the first stone tools of any type were brought into use, although they were of a very basic nature.

FeatureAround 1.7 million years ago the Developed Oldowan (a name coined by Mary Leakey) appeared at the end of the Pliocene to describe a more technically advanced Oldowan tool use, even though changes were not especially drastic. This industry crossed over into the Lower Pleistocene and witnessed significant changes in tool types, which can be categorised in A, B, and C phases (C being the most recent). It coincides with the appearance of Homo ergaster (formerly known universally as Homo erectus, this name is now more usually applied to ergaster populations that migrated out of Africa, primarily to head east towards South East Asia - Hominid Chronology Part 4 covers them in more detail).

Almost as soon as the Developed Oldowan established itself amongst early human types, two new industries made an appearance (thereby refuting the occasional claim that the Developed Oldowan was a transitional phase). The Acheulian (approximately 1.76 million to 100,000 BC) saw hand axes and cleavers being worked on both faces to create better tools. Acheulian industries remained in use for well over a million years, lasting until 120,000 years ago and spreading into the Middle East and Europe with migrating populations of Homo ergaster and being perpetuated by its descendant, Homo Heidelbergensis. During this long period, scavenging gradually gave way to organised hunting, and fire began to be used for cooking meat and making stronger tools, probably around the one million years BC mark. The Karari industry appeared around the same time as the Acheulian, but was concentrated around the Koobi Fora area of Kenya. This was characterised by large core-scrapers.

(Additional information from The Times Atlas of Past Worlds, Chris Scarre (Ed, 1988), from From Africa to Eurasia - Early Dispersals, O Bar-Yosef & A Belfer-Cohen (Quaternary International 75, 2001), from Masters of the Planet: The Search for our Human Origins, Ian Tattersall (2012), from Stratigraphic, Chronological and Behavioural Contexts of Pleistocene Homo Sapiens from Middle Awash, Ethiopia, J D Clarke et al (Nature 423, 2003), and from The Oldowan-Acheulian Transition: Is there a 'Developed Oldowan' Artefact Tradition?, Sileshi Semaw, Michael Rogers, & Dietrich Stout.)

2.5 million BC

Prehistory IndexThe appearance of stone tools around this time marks the critical first step in human cultural development. Tools enable early hominids to widen the range of foods that are available to them. They are able to cut meat from carcases, and sharpen materials such as wood, bark, reeds, and hides into useful items. Amongst the very earliest stone tools to be discovered by archaeologists, those at Hadar in Ethiopia, date to this period, triggering the start of the Palaeolithic age. (The full range of features covering human evolution is available via the Prehistory index - see link, right.)

Oldowan tools
The Oldowan stone tool industry was first defined from examples excavated from Beds I & II at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania. Palaeoanthropologists refer to Homo habilis as the maker of these tools because they appear in the fossil record around the same time or a little later than the earliest Oldowan tools

1.8 million BC

The site of Olduvai Gorge also contains stone tools of this early industry which bears its name - the Oldowan. More recent than the tools at Hadar, these tools remain essentially the same, in the form of pebbles with irregular sharp edges that have been created by using one stone as a hammer to chip a series of flakes off the other. The flakes themselves could be used as implements, especially in butchering animal carcases. At this stage, meat is still being gained by scavenging rather than hunting, although this and the bone marrow that is acquired by smashing the bones with stones is already proving beneficial to hominid development.

These hominids are probably highly social creatures living in fairly permanent groups. As hunting begins to become important, a division of labour appears in groups. Males concentrate more on the work of tracking and hunting game while the females and older males process food, and prepare and repair basic shelters (found at Olduvai Gorge) at the first home bases, the precursor to permanent settlements.

1.7 - 1.5 million BC

Significant changes in tool types appear at the start of the Developed Oldowan, the Acheulian, and the Karari. All of these stone-based human industries appear at around the same time in different regions of Africa. This coincides (loosely) with the appearance and development of a new species of human, and the first truly human-like species, Homo ergaster.

The Acheulian witnesses the most important developments in stone technology, characterised by hand axes and cleavers worked on both faces. The Karari is concentrated around the Koobi Fora area of Kenya and is characterised by large core-scrapers. All of these developments occur after groups of ergaster migrate out of Africa to become the Homo erectus populations of the Far East. Seemingly not possessing this technology, erectus groups take several hundred thousands of years to invent something similar and may instead use bamboo weapons for their hunting (which of course have not survived to leave evidence of such use). However, they do take with them the stone tools of the Oldowan, as seen in the Riwat culture of the Indus Valley. Recent discoveries in India suggest that a form of Acheulian also develops there, as the Madrasian culture.

1.0 million BC

Fossil finds in Kenya dated to 930,000 years ago suggest that Homo ergaster is still dominant in Africa. Around this time it seems to become the first hominid to use fire, which enables it to eat food more easily and for the size of its jaws and teeth to reduce. This results in some variation occurring in skull sizes, marking out demonstrable differences at this time between ergaster and Homo erectus.

600,000 BC

FeatureThe stone tools of the Acheulian become more extensively trimmed, making them thinner and more symmetrical than previously. This refinement appears to coincide with the appearance of Homo Heidelbergensis in Africa, and is also simultaneous with Homo erectus populations in sub-tropical Asia showing their first signs of anatomical development. Heidelbergensis groups also innovate many more advanced tools that are not associated with the preceding early and middle Palaeolithic periods, such as throwing spears, which is a somewhat anomalous finding. More advanced tool-making techniques of the Mesolithic Mousterian culture tool case are also thought to be innovated by this species toward the end of its presence in the fossil record.

Acheulian handaxe
This large Acheulian handaxe was excavated on the Kalambo Falls site in northern Zambia by Desmond Clark and dates approximately to 100,000 years ago, probably being made with a soft hammer percussion flaking tool that may have been antler, bone, ivory, or wood

195,000 BC

FeatureWhen the bones of two early humans are found in 1967 near Kibish in Ethiopia, they are thought to be 130,000 years old. In the late 1990s researchers find human bones dated between 160,000 BC to 154,000 BC at Herto, also in Ethiopia. In 2005 a new study of the 1967 fossils indicates that they are in fact 195,000 years old, making them amongst the earliest-known modern humans (in an archaic form) to roam Africa.

145,000 BC

FeatureAspects of the Aterian culture first appear in Africa, at the the site of Ifri n'Ammar in Morocco. This gathers pace around the beginning of the last interglacial, around 130,000 BC. Fossils from this culture are broadly similar to those from other, contemporary early human sites in the Levant.

100,000 BC

By the end of the Acheulian, many aspects of human behaviour are probably in existence. Among these are the combination of hunting and gathering as a successful way of life, the use of fire, and a simple but effective technology in both stone and wood. The Old Stone Age gives way to the Middle Stone Age and the appearance of more specific and centred human cultures. The archaeological record is far from complete however. There seems to be a large gap in knowledge to show how the Acheulian evolves into the Upper Palaeolithic human cultures, such as the Baradostian of the Middle East (which out-competes the Neanderthal Mousterian culture), and the contemporary Aurignacian of Europe (which out-competes the Neanderthal Châtelperronian culture), as human groups began a rapid period of expansion and innovation.