Story in stone: From the discovery of ancient fossils to the documentation of human societies of just a few hundred years ago, stone has a story to tell us. IstockiStock
Story in stone: From the discovery of ancient fossils to the documentation of human societies of just a few hundred years ago, stone has a story to tell us. IstockiStock

A study has found that "staying longer at home" was key to a Stone Age technology change about 60‚000 years ago.

Research by scientists at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) suggests this was about the time when Stone Age humans began to settle down‚ staying in one area for longer periods.

Wits said the research also provides a potential answer to a long-held mystery: why older‚ Howiesons Poort complex technological traditions in SA‚ suddenly disappeared at that time.

The research paper by Dr Paloma de la Peña and Prof Lyn Wadley from the Evolutionary Studies Institute and the school of geography‚ archaeology and environmental studies at Wits in Johannesburg‚ was published in PlosOne‚ titled: Technological variability at Sibudu Cave: The end of Howiesons Poort and reduced mobility strategies after 62‚000 years ago.

De la Peña and Wadley explored the changes observed between an industry known as the Howiesons Poort (dated about 65‚000 to 62‚000 years ago at Sibudu) and the one that followed it at about 58‚000 years ago.

Sibudu‚ a rock shelter near Tongaat in KwaZulu-Natal‚ has a long and diverse archaeological sequence. The Howiesons Poort contains many crescent-shaped stone tools fashioned from long‚ thin blades made of dolerite‚ hornfels and‚ to a lesser extent‚ quartz. These "segments" were hafted to shafts or handles at a variety of angles using compound adhesives that sometimes included red ochre (an iron oxide).

A variety of hunting techniques was used‚ perhaps including the first use of snares for the capture of small creatures‚ according to the study. "The animal remains brought to Sibudu reflect this diversity for there are bones from large plains game, such as zebra‚ tiny blue duiker‚ and even pigeons and small carnivores."

Soft‚ clayey ochre pieces were collected in the Howiesons Poort‚ "perhaps at a considerable distance from Sibudu". Clayey ochre is useful for applying as paint.

The Wits study said "the beautiful Howiesons Poort industry with its long‚ thin blades is replaced at 58‚000 years ago by a simple technology that could be rapidly produced". Coarse rocks such as quartzite and sandstone became popular. These could be collected close to Sibudu.

Post-Howiesons Poort tools were part of an unstandardised tool kit with triangular or irregularly shaped flakes. Tiny scaled pieces were also produced using a bipolar technique (in the simplest terms this involves smashing a small piece of rock with a hammerstone).

The study said there were many grindstones in Sibudu at 58‚000 years ago‚ used to grind ochre and/or bone. Ochre use also changed. Silty ochre found close to Sibudu was popular at 58‚000 years ago and rather than suggesting tasks different from earlier ones‚ researchers suggest people may have wanted to collect raw materials close to their camp.

"Various types of evidence suggest that by 58‚000 years ago people stayed in Sibudu longer than before. There was considerable‚ rapid accumulation of sediments built up in millimetre-thick lenses from stacked layers of burnt sedge and grass bedding. Grass bedding gets infested with pests‚ so people can either burn bedding to clean the camp or move out.

"Environmental factors do not seem to have caused the time-related technological and site-formation changes that we have observed. We are inclined to favour social transformation as the reason," the researchers said. "It is possible that changes in band size and/or membership of the group influenced decisions about whether to stay in Sibudu."

Scientists do not know whether group size was larger at 58‚000 years ago than before‚ or whether small groups occupied the site for a long time. "What we can say is that the people using the simple post-Howiesons Poort technology were ‘home-bodies’ who preferred to collect the raw materials they needed from close to their camp."

Please sign in or register to comment.