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Prehistoric Africa

Cataloguing Archaeological Cultures

by Peter Kessler & Edward Dawson, 20 April 2021

The system which evolved in the early twentieth century to help chart the rise of civilisation was one which 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.

Cultural names

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 in the early culture pages (see sidebar links) to combine different cultural names which refer to the same culture. The relationship between the archaeological cultures which are listed on those pages 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.


The 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 for peoples who came out of Africa via the Near East.

The Venus of Hohle
The earliest undisputed human sculpture was designed to be worn as an amulet and is small enough to be enclosed by a fist - it clearly represents a woman, with ballooning breasts and elaborately carved genitalia, whilst head, arms and legs are merely suggested

The beginnings of modern human history in the Near East are uncertain, thanks to several waves of migration and then retreat (or extinction) prior to the attempt which succeeded around - or a little earlier than - 70,000 BC. Asia was penetrated not long after that, South-East Asia and Oceania by 60,000 BC, and East Asia shortly afterwards.

Central Asia took longer to enter, perhaps by 40,000 BC, by which time humans had already been venturing into Europe for at least eight thousand years. This period down to 25,000 BC includes the last full interglacial period and the last glaciation. The latter was followed by the start of the interglacial period which still persists today, now beyond its theoretical maximum lifetime.

In Europe the Aurignacian culture of the Upper Palaeolithic coincided with that last glaciation, which was much more severe in Europe than in Central Asia and Northern Asia. Siberia below the latitude of 60 N was ice-free (although not without associated freshwater flooding-related problems), and therefore so also was early Asia as a whole.

From this point in time, this and various other cultures emerged, some replacing the earliest ones, while others were expressions of human expansion, not least into the Americas (see the 'Prehistoric World' index link for information on pre-modern human Earth).

Listing cultures in these pages

Cataloguing the vast range of human cultures within this sweep of prehistory (and further, to the beginnings of civilisation) is a complex process.

It starts off reasonably easily, with the result that most early cultures can be included on a single page for each continent (see the sidebar links). As cultures become more numerous, and rival contemporary cultures spring up in different regions at the same time, listing them on one page becomes more complicated.

After a while, each initial page branches out in various regional directions (and onto multiple sub-pages) so that multiple cultures can be logged without creating too much clutter and confusion.

Perhaps the most suitable way in which to view this is in the form of the roots of a tree, with the main trunk starting here and in Africa, followed by the main page for each continent, and then heading down through the page (ie. into the soil) where the ever-smaller roots forking outwards to link into many other pages.

Mal-ta-Buret' boy
DNA from the skeleton of a boy of the Mal'ta-Buret' culture in Siberia offers clues to the first Americans, with this culture being the first to the east of the Ural Mountains to show differences from its European counterparts, albeit before any admixture from East Asians had taken place


Main Sources

Faux, David K - A Genetic Signal of Central European Celtic Ancestry

Roberts, Benjamin W & Vander Linden, Marc - Investigating Archaeological Cultures: Material Culture, Variability, and Transmission (Eds)



Images and text copyright © P L Kessler & Edward Dawson. An original feature for the History Files.