Middle Stone Age

Middle Stone Age
This article is about the term as applied to African prehistory. See Mesolithic for the "middle" period of the Stone Age in general. See Middle Paleolithic for the "middle" part of the "Old Stone Age".

The Middle Stone Age (or MSA) was a period of African Prehistory between Early Stone Age and Late Stone Age. It is generally considered to have begun around 280,000 years ago and ended around 50-25,000 years ago.[1] The beginnings of particular MSA stone tools have their origins as far back as 550-500,000 years ago and as such some researchers consider this to be the beginnings of the MSA [2]. It was once considered roughly equivalent to the European Middle Paleolithic[3], but recent discoveries of evidence for art and symbolic culture in the MSA have forced a reassessment of this idea.[4] The MSA is associated with both anatomically modern humans (Homo sapiens) as well as archaic Homo sapiens, sometimes referred to as Homo helmei. Early physical evidence comes from the Gademotta Formation in Ethiopia, The Kapthurin Formation in Kenya and Kathu Pan in South Africa. [5]


Middle Stone Age artifacts

There is today widespread agreement among archaeologists that the world's first art and symbolic culture dates to the southern African Middle Stone Age. Some of the most striking artefacts, including engraved pieces of red ochre, were manufactured at Blombos Cave in South Africa 70 ka. Pierced and ochred Nassarius shell beads were also recovered from Blombos, with even earlier examples (Middle Stone Age, Aterian) from the Taforalt Caves. Arrows and hide working tools have been found at Sibudu Cave[6] as evidence of making weapons with compound heat treated gluing technology[7].

Early development

During the Acheulian to MSA transition the Middle Awash valley of Ethiopia and the Central Rift Valley of Kenya constituted a major center for behavioural innovation [8]. It is likely that the large terrestrial mammal biomass of these regions supported substantial human populations with subsistence and manufacturing patterns similar to those of ethnographically known forager. Early blades have been documented as far back as 550-500,000 years in the Kapthurin Formation in Kenya and Kathu Pan in South Africa. [9] Backed pieces from the Twin Rivers and Kalambo Falls sites in Zambia dated at sometime between 300 and 140,000 years indicate a suite of new behaviours [10][11] and Barham [12] believes that syntactic language was one behavioural aspect that allowed these MSA people to settle in the tropical forests of the Congo. A high level of technical competence is also indicated for the c. 280 ka blades recovered from the Kapthurin Formation, Kenya [13].

Human change and replacement

By c. 80 – 50 ka MSA humans spread out of Africa to Asia, Australia and Europe [14], perhaps only in small numbers initially [15], but by c. 30 ka they had replaced Neanderthals and Homo erectus. Based on the measurement of a large number of human skulls a recent study supports a central/southern African origin for Homo sapiens as this region shows the highest intra-population diversity in phenotypic measurements. Genetic data supports this conclusion [16].

Behaviour and cognitive innovation

The development of modern behaviour in the MSA is likely to have been a vast and complex series of events that developed in a mosaic way.[17]. Some have argued for discontinuity such as Richard G. Klein,[18] while other such as McBrearty and Brooks have argued that cognitive advances can be detected in the MSA and that the origin of our species is linked with the appearance of Middle Stone Age technology at 250-300 ka.[19]

Complex cognition

A series of innovations have been documented by 170-160,000 years ago at the site of Pinnacle Point 13B on the southern Cape coast of South Africa. [20] This includes the oldest confirmed evidence for the utilisation of ochre and marine resources in the form of shellfish exploitation for food. Based on his analysis of the MSA bovid assemblage at Klasies, Milo (1998) reports MSA people were formidable hunters and that their social behaviour patterns approached those of modern humans. Deacon [21] maintains that the management of plant food resources through deliberate burning of the veldt to encourage the growth of plants with corms or tubers in the southern Cape during the Howiesons Poort (c. 70 - 55 ka) is indicative of modern behaviour. A family basis to foraging groups, colour symbolism and the reciprocal exchange of artefacts and the formal organization of living space are, he suggests, further evidence for modernity in the MSA.

Lyn Wadley has argued that the complexity of the skill needed to process the heat-treated compound glue (gum and red ochre) used to haft spears would seem to argue for continuity between modern human cognition and that of humans 70,000 BP at Sibudu Cave[7] · [22].

Evidence for language

Ochre is reported from some early MSA sites, for example at Kapthurin and Twin Rivers, and is common after c. 100 ka [23]. Barham [24] argues that even if some of this ochre was used in a symbolic, colour related role then this abstraction could not have worked without language. Ochre, he suggests, could be one proxy for trying to find the emergence of language.

Formal bone tools are frequently associated with modern behaviour by archaeologists [25]. Sophisticated bone harpoons manufactured at Katanda, West Africa at c. 90 ka [26] and bone tools from Blombos Cave dated at c. 77 ka [27] may then also serve as examples of material culture associated with modern language.

Many authors have speculated that at the core of this symbolic explosion, and in tandem, was the development of syntactic language that evolved through a highly specialized social learning system [28] providing the means for semantically unbounded discourse [29]. Syntax would have played a key role in this process and its full adoption could have been a crucial element of the symbolic behavioural package in the MSA [30].

Brain change

Although the advent of anatomical physical modernity cannot confidently be linked with palaeoneurological change[31], it does seem probable that hominid brains evolved through the same selection processes as other body parts[32]. Genes that promoted a capacity for symbolism may have been selected suggesting the foundations for symbolic culture may well be grounded in biology but behaviour that was mediated by symbolism may have only come later, even though this physical capacity was already in place much earlier. Skoyles and Sagan for example argues that human brain expansion by increasing the prefrontal cortex would have created a brain capable of symbolizing its previously nonsymbolic cognition, and that this process, slow to begin with, increasingly accelerated during the last 100,000 years.[33] Symbolically mediated behaviour may have feedback upon this process by creating greater ability to manufacture symbolic artifacts and social networks that were organized upon them.

Pattern of change

Artifact technology during the Middle Stone Age shows a pattern of innovation followed by disappearance. This occurs to technology such as the manufacture of shell beads[34], arrows and hide working tools including needles[6] and gluing technology[7]. This has been suggested to question the classic out of Africa scenario in which increasing complexity accumulated during the Middle Stone Age. Instead, it has been argued that such technological innovations "appear, disappear and re-appear in a way that best fits a scenario in which historical contingencies and environmental rather than cognitive changes are seen as main drivers"[6]p. 1577..


See also


  1. ^ McBrearty and Brooks 2000
  2. ^ Herries 2011
  3. ^ Biological origins of modern humans
  4. ^ Watts 1999, 2002, 2009.
  5. ^ Herries 2011
  6. ^ a b c Backwell L, d'Errico F, Wadley L.(2008). Middle Stone Age bone tools from the Howiesons Poort layers, Sibudu Cave, South Africa. Journal of Archaeological Science, 35:1566-1580. doi:10.1016/j.jas.2007.11.006
  7. ^ a b c Wadley L, Hodgskiss T, Grant M. (2009). Implications for complex cognition from the hafting of tools with compound adhesives in the Middle Stone Age, South Africa. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 106:9590–9594 doi:10.1073/pnas.0900957106 PMID 19433786
  8. ^ Brooks 2006
  9. ^ Herries 2011
  10. ^ Barham 2002a
  11. ^ Herries 2011
  12. ^ 2001:70
  13. ^ Deino and McBrearty, 2002
  14. ^ Mellars 2006
  15. ^ Manica et al. 2007
  16. ^ Manica et al. 2007:346
  17. ^ cf. Chase and Dibble 1990; Foley and Lahr 1997, 2003; Gibson 1996; Renfrew 1996; Deacon 2001; Henshilwood and Marean 2003
  18. ^ Klein, R. G., (2000). Archaeology and the evolution of human behavior. Evolutionary Anthropology 9: 17-36.
  19. ^ Mcbrearty S, Brooks AS. (2000). The revolution that wasn't: a new interpretation of the origin of modern human behavior. J Hum Evol. 39(5):453-563. doi:10.1006/jhev.2000.0435 PMID 11102266
  20. ^ Marean et al 2007
  21. ^ 2001:6
  22. ^ Wynn T. (2009). Hafted spears and the archaeology of mind.Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 106:9544–9545 PMID 19506246
  23. ^ Watts, I. (2002). Ochre in the Middle Stone Age of southern Africa: ritualized display or hide preservative? South African Archaeological Bulletin 57: 64-74.
  24. ^ Barham, L. S. (2002). Systematic pigment use in the Middle Pleistocene of south central Africa. Current Anthropology 31(1): 181–190.
  25. ^ e.g. Klein 2000; Henshilwood et al. 2001b
  26. ^ Yellen et al. 1995; Brooks et al. 1995
  27. ^ Henshilwood et al. 2001b
  28. ^ Richerson and Boyd 1998
  29. ^ Rappaport 1999
  30. ^ Bickerton 2003
  31. ^ Holloway 1996
  32. ^ Gabora 2001
  33. ^ Skoyles JR. Sagan D. (2002) Up from Dragons: The evolution of intelligence. McGraw-Hill.
  34. ^ d'Errico F, Vanhaeren M, Wadley L. (2008). Possible shell beads from the Middle Stone Age layers of Sibudu Cave, South Africa. Journal of Archaeological Science, 35: 2675-2685. doi:10.1016/j.jas.2008.04.023


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