How did Stone Agers share design tips without Pinterest?
Research on ancient behaviour patterns in SA forces us to change how we think about our ancestors
Think of it as Pinterest for Middle Stone Agers: getting design ideas and inspiration from people geographically far away but with the same needs.
That’s what a group of international researchers, led by the University of the Witwatersrand, have just discovered about two communities who lived 300km apart (that’s quite a distance when you’re on foot) about 60,000 years ago on SA soil. It is an archaeological find that is likely to change the way we think of our ancestors.
The one location is the Klipdrift Shelter in the Southern Cape; the other is the Diepkloof Rock Shelter in the Western Cape. It was from these two sites that researchers – lithic experts, or experts in stone – examined thousands of tools that were excavated from seven layers. These layers, almost like a time chart immortalised in nature, represent a period of between 66,000 and 59,000 years ago.
They later said they were “astonished” at the “distinct similarities” between the tools from the two sites, which were mainly blades and backed knives.
“While regional specificities in the tools from the various sites exist, the similarities of Klipdrift Shelter with the site of Diepkloof Rock Shelter are astonishing,” says Swiss researcher Dr Katja Douze, who was a postdoctoral fellow at Wits University during the research and who is now the corresponding author of the study.
Published in Plos One last week, the research, according to the team, is exciting because it shows how tool design reveals closely networked interaction between communities across distances. “There was an almost perfect match between the tools from the Klipdrift and Diepkloof shelters,” says Douze.
“This shows us that there was regular interaction between these two communities. This is the first time that we can draw such a parallel between different sites based on robust sets of data, and show that there was mobility between the two sites. This is unique for the Middle Stone Age.”
The Middle Stone Age in Africa stretches from 350,000 to 25,000 years ago and is a key period for understanding the development of the first Homo sapiens, their behavioural changes through time and their movements in and out of Africa.
Another interesting aspect of the research which relates to these behavioural changes is to do with culture. While it is often assumed that changes in tool design were a knee-jerk response to environmental changes, Douze says: “The changes over time seem to reflect cultural changes rather than immediate alterations forced on the designers by changes in climate. Our preconceived idea of prehistoric groups is that they just struggled to survive, but in fact they were very adaptable to environmental circumstances.”