Chronology of the Acheulean to Middle Stone Age transition in eastern Africa

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Science  06 Apr 2018:
Vol. 360, Issue 6384, pp. 95-98
DOI: 10.1126/science.aao2216

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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


The origin of the Middle Stone Age (MSA) marks the transition from a highly persistent mode of stone toolmaking, the Acheulean, to a period of increasing technological innovation and cultural indicators associated with the evolution of Homo sapiens. We used argon-40/argon-39 and uranium-series dating to calibrate the chronology of Acheulean and early MSA artifact–rich sedimentary deposits in the Olorgesailie basin, southern Kenya rift. We determined the age of late Acheulean tool assemblages from 615,000 to 499,000 years ago, after which a large technological and faunal transition occurred, with a definitive MSA lacking Acheulean elements beginning most likely by ~320,000 years ago, but at least by 305,000 years ago. These results establish the oldest repository of MSA artifacts in eastern Africa.

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