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Long-distance stone transport and pigment use in the earliest Middle Stone Age

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Science  06 Apr 2018:
Vol. 360, Issue 6384, pp. 90-94
DOI: 10.1126/science.aao2646

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The Middle Stone Age in Africa

The Olorgesailie basin in the southern Kenya rift valley contains sediments dating back to 1.2 million years ago, preserving a long archaeological record of human activity and environmental conditions. Three papers present the oldest East African evidence of the Middle Stone Age (MSA) and elucidate the system of technology and behavior associated with the origin of Homo sapiens. Potts et al. present evidence for the demise of Acheulean technology that preceded the MSA and describe variations in late Acheulean hominin behavior that anticipate MSA characteristics. The transition to the MSA was accompanied by turnover of large mammals and large-scale landscape change. Brooks et al. establish that ∼320,000 to 305,000 years ago, the populations in eastern Africa underwent a technological shift upon procurement of distantly sourced obsidian for toolmaking, indicating the early development of social exchange. Deino et al. provide the chronological underpinning for these discoveries.

Science, this issue p. 86, p. 90, p. 95

Abstract

Previous research suggests that the complex symbolic, technological, and socioeconomic behaviors that typify Homo sapiens had roots in the middle Pleistocene <200,000 years ago, but data bearing on human behavioral origins are limited. We present a series of excavated Middle Stone Age sites from the Olorgesailie basin, southern Kenya, dating from ≥295,000 to ~320,000 years ago by argon-40/argon-39 and uranium-series methods. Hominins at these sites made prepared cores and points, exploited iron-rich rocks to obtain red pigment, and procured stone tool materials from ≥25- to 50-kilometer distances. Associated fauna suggests a broad resource strategy that included large and small prey. These practices imply notable changes in how individuals and groups related to the landscape and to one another and provide documentation relevant to human social and cognitive evolution.

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