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Early 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 earliest cultures saw basic stone tools used across Africa, the Near East, Europe, and Asia, including early China, Japan, and Siberia, before subtle changes began to appear.

FeatureThe system which has evolved to catalogue the various archaeological expressions of human progress is one which involves cultures. For well over a century, archaeological cultures have remained the framework for global prehistory. The earliest cultures which emerge from Africa are perhaps the easiest to catalogue, right up until human expansion reaches the Americas. The task of cataloguing that vast range of human cultures is covered in the related feature (see link, right). Archaeological cultures remain the framework for global prehistory.

(Information by Peter Kessler, with 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

Palaeolithic 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 Near 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.

(Information by Peter Kessler, with 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.)

c.2.5 million BC

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

c.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.

c.1.7 - 1.5 m 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.

Homo floresiensis
Seemingly missing out on the development of stone tools, Homo erectus populations which were in the process of migrating into the Far East had to find alternatives

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.

c.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.

c.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

c.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.

c.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.

FeatureShortly after this period, rainy spells in what is now Israel match the period which sees the first modern human settlements in the Near East. The wet periods form what, essentially, are climatic windows that allow migration north through the Sahara and up into Asia via a 'land bridge' on the Sinai Peninsula.

c.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.

Levallois Technique tool
Levallois Technique tool-making was pioneered by the Neanderthals of the Mousterian around three hundred thousand years ago, at least a hundred thousand years before the first appearance of anatomically modern humans

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 Near 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.

Aterian Culture (Middle Palaeolithic)
c.145,000 - 30,000 BC

This Middle Palaeolithic (Middle Old Stone Age) culture flourished in North Africa, to the west of the Nile. Largely a dead end in terms of external or lasting local impact, it is not thought to have influenced any other archaeological cultures. Aspects of the Aterian culture first appear at the the site of Ifri n'Ammar in Morocco. It gathered 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.

FeatureExcavations along the Nile have produced a series of discoveries which hint at temporary occupation over time by a number of groups from a number of different directions, and not just within Africa. One of these was Abbevillian - formerly known as Chellean - a culture of Homo Neanderthalis in Europe. Another was Acheulean, both primitive and developed, and an even older culture of Homo ergaster and Homo Heidelbergensis), along with an Egyptian form of the Clactonian - another Homo Heidelbergensis culture. All of these show constant habitation of the region even by early humans (see feature link for more on early human chronology).

Nile-based implements have also been discovered which were initially reported as Early Mousterian but which have since been reclassified as Levalloisean, which was a developed form of Aceulean. Much less old were items that could be dated as an Egyptian version of the Aterian and also the Sebilian. The discovery of Early Mousterian - largely a Near Eastern culture of Homo Neanderthalis but with some possible crossovers with the first Homo sapiens groups in the region - shows that migration was not merely one-way, out of Africa, but also back into it. Aterian tool-making reached Egypt around 40,000 BC, but was quickly replaced by the Khormusan industry which developed between 40,000 BC and 30,000 BC. Aterian may have survived longer in West Africa though.

The Aterian arose as its key technology - efficient spear points - were being derived entirely or in part from the Mousterian. However, research into this culture and its developments is still at a comparatively early stage so little firm data can be accessed. That it was a contemporary of the Near Eastern Mousterian is clear, but how much cross-pollination of ideas there may have been is not. Aterian tools are differentiated from the rest of the Mousterian by the presence of a tang, which presumably functioned as a hafting stem for projectiles. The status of Aterian tanged tools as true spear points, however, remains controversial and essential to conversation regarding the evolution of hunting behaviour.

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from Out of Eden, Stephen Oppenheimer (Constable and Robinson, 2004), and from External Links: Stone Age Toolmakers Surprisingly Sophisticated (Science), and Platform Variability & Flake Morphology, H L Dibble (PDF), and the Bradshaw Foundation: Origins, and 82,000-year-old shell beads from North Africa and implications for the origins of modern human behavior (NCBI), and First Human Culture Lasted 20,000 Years Longer Than Thought (Max-Planck-Gesellschaft).)

c.82,000 BC

The earliest-known appearance of explicitly symbolic objects in the archaeological record marks a fundamental stage in the emergence of modern social behaviour in modern Homo sapiens. Ornaments such as shell beads represent some of the earliest objects of this kind. The shell beads are found at Grotte des Pigeons (Taforalt, Morocco). They confirm evidence of similar ornaments from other less well dated sites in North Africa and adjacent areas of south-western Asia.

Prehistoric cave paintings
Despite the fact that the Aterian seemingly gave little in terms of modern human development to later archaeological cultures, it still managed to last an impressive 115,000 years

c.11,000 BC

Research in Senegal which is published in January 2021 suggests that the Aterian (and the Middle Palaeolithic in general) persists for a further twenty thousand years after its traditional end date of about 30,000 BC. Hunter-gatherers in Senegal show the continued use of this culture's technology across several sites rather than the successor industry of the Khormusan which is focussed on the length of the Nile. The waxing and waning of the Sahara to the north and the Central African rainforests may serve to isolate West Africa from advancements made in East Africa and the Near East.

Khormusan Industry (Egyptian Late Palaeolithic)
c.40,000 - 16,000 BC

Tool-making from the fading Aterian culture reached ancient Egypt around 40,000 BC, generating the Khormusan industry. A start date for this industry is still somewhat negotiable though, being anywhere between 40,000 BC and 30,000 BC. Its people developed advanced tools not only from stone but also from animal bones and hematite. With these they were able to hunt and fish along the banks of the Nile. They also developed small arrow heads which resembled those of Native Americans, even though no bows have been found in Khormusan deposits.

FeatureExcavations along the Nile have produced a series of discoveries which hint at temporary occupation over time by a number of groups from a number of different directions, and not just within Africa. One of these was Abbevillian - formerly known as Chellean - a culture of Homo Neanderthalis in Europe. Another was Acheulean, both primitive and developed, and an even older culture of Homo ergaster and Homo Heidelbergensis), along with an Egyptian form of the Clactonian - another Homo Heidelbergensis culture. All of these show constant habitation of the region even by early humans (see feature link for more on early human chronology).

All of these primitive cultures, of course, predate the Aterian. The Khormusan itself stretched down the Nile and into what is now Sudan (formerly regions of Nubia). It was originally though to be an Upper Palaeolithic culture, but later revisions brought it down into the Middle Palaeolithic and then into the later period. The end of the Khormusan industry came around 16,000 BC with the appearance of other cultures in the region, including the Gemaian. The Sebilian culture more directly replaced it though, via the Halfan in-between, although it added little to the extant tool technology which, during its course, had become more refined and specialised by practitioners along the Nile Valley.

(Information by Peter Kessler, and from External Links: Stone Age Toolmakers Surprisingly Sophisticated (Science), and Palaeolithic Egypt (formerly provided by Minnesota State University but now only available via the Way Back Machine internet archive), and The Khormusan: an Upper Pleistocene industry in Sudanese Nubia (eHRAF Archaeology).)

c.30,000 BC

Just as the Aterian is fading, the Late Palaeolithic begins in Egypt around this time. The Nazlet Khater skeleton is unearthed in 1980 from the banks of the Nile. Two years later it is dated from nine samples which range between 35,100-30,360 years. This specimen is the only complete modern human skeleton from the earliest Late Stone Age period in Africa.

Sahara Desert
The Sahara has undergone a gradual transition from sweeping grassland to dessicated sand on more than one occasion, notably around 30,000 BC (and again around 2000 BC)

Some of the oldest-known buildings are discovered in Egypt by archaeologist Waldemar Chmielewski, located along the southern border near Wadi Halfa. These are mobile structures which are easily disassembled, moved, and reassembled by hunter-gatherers.

FeatureThe background to this period is one of the rolling grasslands of the Sahara which contain abundant vegetation and food, but which is fading. The climate is beginning to dry up, the rolling grasslands have started receding, and the food supplies have begun to vanish (see feature link for more on a later repetition of the same grassland-to-sand process). Humans in this region have started making their way to the Nile Valley with its readily available water, game, and arable land.

Halfan Culture / Kubbaniyan Culture (Egyptian Late Epipalaeolithic)
c.18,000 - 15,000 BC

The Halfan culture - or industry to be more accurate - was a development of the earlier Khormusan industry. Tool-making from the fading Aterian culture had reached ancient Egypt around 40,000 BC to generate this localised industry. Advanced tools were developed not only from stone but also from animal bones and hematite to aid fishing and hunting along the banks of the Nile. The Halfan was centred along the Upper Nile, in an area which today is part of northern Sudan (formerly regions of Nubia). Its people continued the tradition of hunting big game animals and fishing in the Nile.

The Kubbaniyan culture (again, an industry) was to all intents and purposes the same cultural expression as the Halfan. Lasting between about 17,600-15,000 BC, it was located to the north of the Halfannorth, in Egypt itself. Both cultures have little to differentiate them from one another. The Kubbaniyan can be pinpointed to Wadi Kubbaniya, at which twelve sites had been uncovered by 1989. During this period, Saharan sands were gradually intruding from the north, but sites were occupied, abandoned, and then reoccupied several times. The period during and after the maximum flooding of the Nile seems to have been key periods for this.

The Halfan has a peculiar and unexplained find zone which has been dated to about 24,000 BC, although this could be a sideways development of the Khormusan which simply seemed like the later Halfan. Christopher Ehret proposes that the proto-Afro-Asiatic languages may have begun to spread from this area at about this time period, leading to the speculation that Halfan people may have spoken a variant of the Afro-Asiatic languages. Both industries were succeeded by the Sebilian and Qadan cultures, although little had been added to the extant tool technology which, during its course, had become more refined and specialised by practitioners along the Nile Valley.

Halfan tools

(Information by Peter Kessler, and from External Links: Stone Age Toolmakers Surprisingly Sophisticated (Science), and Palaeolithic Egypt (formerly provided by Minnesota State University but now only available via the Way Back Machine internet archive), and The Khormusan: an Upper Pleistocene industry in Sudanese Nubia (eHRAF Archaeology), and Lithic development in the Kubbaniyan (Upper Egypt), Angela E Close (Late Prehistory of the Nile Basin & Sahara, available from Heidelberg University via PDF), and Halfdan Culture (Academic), and Atuska (Pinterest).)