The Ecology of Early Man in Southern Africa

See allHide authors and affiliations

Science  08 Jul 1977:
Vol. 197, Issue 4299, pp. 115-126
DOI: 10.1126/science.197.4299.115


It is not possible at present to demonstrate hominid occupation of southern Africa prior to the middle or late Pliocene, perhaps 3 million years ago. It may be the case that much, if not most, of the subcontinent was in fact uninhabited before that. The earliest hominid known to have lived in southern Africa is Australopithecus africanus. It was apparently replaced by Homo (?evolved into Homo) by 2 million years ago, at approximately the same time as A. robustus is first recorded locally. Homo and A. robustus then coexisted until perhaps 1 million years ago, after which Homo survived alone. There is no solid evidence that either of the southern African australopithecines made tools or accumulated bones. In fact, at the known sites, it now seems more likely that the bones, including those of the australopithecines themselves, were accumulated by carnivores.

The known archeological record of southern Africa begins 2 million to 1.5 million years ago and the oldest stone tools may belong to the Oldowan Industry. Far better documentation exists for the succeeding Acheulean Industrial Complex, which was present in southern Africa almost certainly before 1 million years ago and persisted with modifications probably until sometime between 300,000 and 130,000 years ago. Although it is known that Acheulean peoples made handaxes, cleavers, and other stone tools, very little else is known about the activities of Acheuleans in southern Africa. Far more is known about their Middle and Later Stone Age successors. Southern African MSA peoples were perhaps among the earliest anywhere to take systematic advantage of aquatic resources for their subsistence, although they apparently did so far less effectively than did the LSA peoples who followed them. There are also contrasts between the ways in which MSA and LSA peoples dealt with terrestrial prey and between the contents of MSA and LSA artifact assemblages. The LSA peoples, for example, seem to have made much more extensive use of bone as a raw material, and they were the first to manufacture articles that are clearly interpretable as ornaments or art objects. From an evolutionary perspective, the LSA may represent a quantum advance over the MSA, perhaps correlated with the replacement of an archaic human physical type by the modem one. However, this must remain only a working hypothesis until much more is learned about the earliest LSA, dating to 35,000 to 40,000 years ago or more, and until there are adequate samples of well-provenienced MSA and early LSA physical remains.

The later LSA, postdating 20,000 to 18,000 years ago, is reasonably well known. Later LSA peoples were probably at least partly responsible for the extinction of several large mammals in southern Africa about 10,000 years ago. By that date or shortly thereafter, at least some LSA peoples established basic hunting-gathering adaptations, which continued until the introduction and spread of agriculture and pastoralism, beginning roughly 2000 years ago. Thereafter, hunters and gatherers became progressively restricted in numbers and distribution, such that today only a very few exist, restricted to some of the most marginal environments of the subcontinent. It remains a major goal of southern African archeology to shed more light on the evolution and operation of hunting-gathering cultures during the vast time span when they covered all of southern Africa.