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African Kingdoms

Early Cultures


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

This African Middle Palaeolithic (Middle Old Stone Age) culture flourished across 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 site of Ifri n'Ammar in Morocco. It gathered pace around the beginning of the last interglacial, around 130,000 BC, broadening outwards during a period in which humans were still largely but not exclusively living within Africa. Fossils from this culture are broadly similar to those from other, contemporary early human sites in the Levant.

Excavations 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.

FeatureAnother was Acheulean, both primitive and developed, with this being an even older culture of Homo ergaster and Homo Heidelbergensis, while there also exist signs of an Egyptian form of the Clactonian, another Homo Heidelbergensis culture. All of these cultures show constant habitation of the region even by early humans (see feature link for more on H Heidelbergensis and 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 more recent were items which 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 because its key technology - efficient spear points - was 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 any conversation which covers the evolution of hunting behaviour.

Homo Neanderthalis

(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 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.

Aterian 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 in Africa for a further twenty thousand years after its traditional end date of about 30,000 BC.

The waxing and waning of the Sahara to the north and the Central African rainforests may serve to isolate West Africa from advancements which are being made in East Africa and the Near East.

Hunter-gatherers in Senegal show the continued use of Aterian culture technology across several sites rather than the successor industry of the Khormusan which is focussed down the length of the Nile.

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