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African Kingdoms

Early Cultures


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

The first truly recognisable human cultures of the Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age) developed in Africa from 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 human 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, out-of-favour name for this industry's appearance in Europe was the Abbevillian).

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 anatomically modern humans were being forced to adapt to new conditions.

FeatureClimate 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 which 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 (see feature link) 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). This coincides with the appearance of Homo ergaster - a human species which used to be known almost universally as Homo erectus. That latter name is now largely reserved for H ergaster populations which left Africa to cross into Asia and generally populate South-East Asia and then East Asia.

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).

FeatureThe Acheulian flourished approximately from 1.76 million million years ago to 100,000 BC. This 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, eventually spreading into the Near East and Europe with migrating populations of Homo ergaster and being perpetuated by its descendant, Homo Heidelbergensis (although this straightforward theory has more recently been thrown into uncertainty over an archaeological sidelining of H Heidelbergensis - see feature link).

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.

Homo Neanderthalis

(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

FeatureThe 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 which 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 (see feature link).

IndexAmongst 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.)

Australopithecus afarensis
Based on computer modelling experiments carried out by Professor Robin Crompton of Liverpool University, the earliest human species are generally regarded to have walked upright, very much like modern man

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 which 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 which 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.

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.1.7 - 1.5 m BC

FeatureSignificant 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 (see feature link).

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, H 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).

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

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 H ergaster in Africa and Homo erectus in Asia.

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. It is also simultaneous with Homo erectus populations in sub-tropical Asia showing their first signs of anatomical development (see feature link).

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

H Heidelbergensis groups also innovate many more advanced tools which 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.

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 (see feature link).

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 which may have been antler, bone, ivory, or wood

c.145,000 BC

FeatureAspects of the Aterian culture first appear in Africa, at 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 (see feature link).

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 (see feature link). The wet periods form what, essentially, are climatic windows which 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.

Chatelperronian tools
Châtelperronian Neanderthal bone artefacts from the Grotte du Renne (Arcy-sur-Cure, France), which experts suggest only became sophisticated after Neanderthals were influenced by early human arrivals in Western Europe

c.100,000 BC

The archaeological record in Africa is far from complete. It is unclear how the Acheulian evolves into the Upper Palaeolithic human cultures, such as the Baradostian of the Near East (which out-competes Neanderthal Mousterian culture), and the Aurignacian of Europe (which out-competes the Neanderthal Châtelperronian culture).

Even so, human groups began a rapid period of expansion and innovation which, in Africa, flourishes during the subsequent Aterian cultural period of the Middle Palaeolithic.

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