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Stone Age signatures in northernmost South Africa: Early archaeology in the Mapungubwe National Park and vicinity

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Abstract

The oldest archaeological sites currently known in northernmost South Africa are found in the Mapungubwe National Park (formerly known as the Vhembe-Dongola National Park) and neighbouring farms, where there is a widespread distribution of open-air sites in deflated contexts. They are sealed by Holocene sands, which at some of the sites contain Later Stone Age (LSA) artefacts. The industry to which the older assemblages are most comparable is final Earlier Stone Age (ESA) in character, with parallels to the Sangoan Industry, or what has locally been proposed as the Charaman from Zimbabwe. A developed phase of the Middle Stone Age (MSA) with segments and retouched points is also represented on one landscape. Rockshelter sites are being investigated to locate stratified deposits to which the open sites may be compared. In the interim, the material provides a form of 'archaeological signature' that can contribute to the overall evaluation of Stone Age occupations in northernmost South Africa. Large-scale climatic fluctuations during the course of the Pleistocene have influenced occupations across southern Africa. The archaeology of the Mapungubwe area appears to have more in common with developments north of the Limpopo than it does with the South African sequence.
... Then, for about 50 years, more attention was lavished on Stone Age sites in the Cape, particularly those at the coast. A resurgence of interest in Limpopo's Stone Age began with new excavations such as those in the Makapan Valley (Sinclair 2009), the Limpopo Valley (Kuman et al. 2005), Olieboomspoort (Van der Ryst 2006;Val et al. 2021), Wonderkrater (Backwell et al. 2014) (Fig. 1) and the Waterberg plateau (Van der Ryst 1998). ...
Article
Red Balloon Rock Shelter is located at 1200 m above mean sea level on the Waterberg Plateau, Limpopo Province. The surface of the deep, dry shelter is strewn with Iron Age ceramics of many facies, and Middle Stone Age (MSA) lithics. It may have been used as a rain-making site from the time of the first Iron Age settlement in the area. In addition to ceramics, there are many ostrich eggshell beads, some worked bone, and seeds that imply vegetation similar to the current vegetation, and the possible use of red balloon (Erythrophysa transvaalensis) seeds as beads. There was, however, probably no agropastoralist occupation within the shelter until the difaqane or just before it. A single preliminary date of 250±80 BP on charcoal from a large hearth supports an interpretation of the shelter as a Tswana rain-control site. The long hiatus between this refugium and the MSA occupation is not geologically marked. The shelter was first inhabited by people close to 100 000 years ago when stone tool-makers were using Levallois, blade, and bipolar flaking for a variety of lithic products that included scrapers, denticulates, points, and backed tools. The lithics were coated in dried mud, suggesting that a wetter than present phase followed the last of the MSA occupations in the shelter.
... The Sangoan, sometimes called Kalinian or Sangoan-Kalinian in Western Africa (Breuil and Janmart, 1950;Giresse, 2008), is usually defined by the presence of the core-axe, a heavy-duty tool distinctive from the handaxe, shaped bifacially to produce a single crude cutting edge, usually on large pebbles (Davies, 1976;Van Peer et al., 2004). These tools are found widespread in Africa (Andah, 1979;Cole, 1967;Kuman et al., 2005;McBrearty, 1991McBrearty, , 1988Sampson, 1974;Scerri, 2017;Van Peer et al., 2003) but their geographical distribution, use and function is poorly understood as it rests mostly on relative dating. Presently, the Sangoan lacks evidence of PCT's and is more often considered part of Mode 2 industries, rather placing focus on the Lupemban as the first specialized woodland adaptation in Central-West Africa (Taylor, 2016). ...
Article
Africa is a key region to understand the emergence and evolution of humans and their distinctive cultural traits. Detailed information exists across the continent, but major areas still lack crucial evidence. One of the most under-represented regions in research about the Middle Stone Age (MSA) is Angola. The geographical position of Angola linking the Central Plateau of Africa to the rainforest, at north, and the Namib Desert, at south, encompasses a mosaic of ecotones that are most relevant to understand the emergence and evolution of human culture in Southwestern Africa. A detailed analysis of the lithic assemblages from Leba Cave, a site located in the western edge of the Huíla Plateau is presented. These highlands correspond to a strip of the Great Escarpment of Africa, a major landform shaping the relief of the southern half of the continent. In the upper series of the escarpment in southern Angola, the outcrops of dolomites and dolostones present a variety of karstic features with preservation of palaeontological and archaeological remains. Leba Cave is located at Humpata, Huíla Province, and was discovered during the Portuguese Colonial Missions. A test pit opened in 1950 retrieved a collection of sediments, fauna and lithics. Our study was focused on the lithic assemblages referenced with the three lower horizons in the reported stratigraphy (III, IV, VI). The techno-typological analysis of the lithics showed these assemblages relate to the classic repertoires of the MSA found across Southern and Central Africa. The chrono-cultural significance of these results is discussed, as well as the regional idiosyncrasies that may characterize the lithic assemblages north of the Namib Desert.
... The well-known 'classic' and 'refined' looking handaxes and cleavers show the 'upper limit' of the technology, particularly in the Later Acheulean after 0.6 Ma (Kuman, 2014), although differences in raw materials and environments create considerable variability across these later assemblages (Clark, 2001). There can be more refined or crude forms that occur throughout any of these phases, and it is not uncommon to see extremely crude 'early' looking LCTs in the Sangoan Industry (a terminal industry of the late ESA; Kuman et al., 2005) and some more refined LCTs during the Early Acheulean as well. Furthermore, tool standardisation was not the desired outcome of hominids during the Acheulean as artefact production was more focused on creating functional tools (Kuman, 2014). ...
Article
Our understanding of the South African Acheulean is heavily biased towards sites located in the interior of the country, namely in the Cradle of Humankind and those located along the Vaal and Orange Rivers. Although these sites have contributed significantly to our understanding of this complex tradition, our interpretations are often limited due to issues with site and assemblage preservation, and dating. It is therefore necessary to locate, excavate, and describe new sites and assemblages from a wider range of environments so that we can understand crucial aspects of hominid behaviour within a variety of ecological, climatological, and environmental contexts. Only two Acheulean sites have been recorded in the Eastern Cape Province (e.g., Amanzi Springs and Geelhoutboom) and of these only one has ever been excavated (Amanzi Springs). As a result there have been no well-described and dated Acheulean assemblages in this province, even though several authors have noted the presence of this material. This paper provides an introduction to a new study region in South Africa: the lower Sundays River Valley. By providing a detailed review of the South African Acheulean, we discuss the significance of this new study region in relation to our wider understanding of the South African Acheulean.
... for example,Pikirayi (2001),Kuman et al. (2005),Van Doornum (2007, 2008,Du Piesanie (2011) andHuffman (2012) for a broader history of Limpopo Valley settlement prior to and after the 400 year period discussed in this paper. 2 TSR1/1 is the original abbreviation Edwin Hanisch used for the archaeological site Schroda, following his format of province (Transvaal) and site (Schroda). ...
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Schroda, a Zhizo/Leokwe settlement in the Limpopo Valley, is well known among archaeologists who study the rise of complex societies in southern Africa. Previous research placed the site at the centre of early East Coast trade networks with the southern African interior, elevating it to economic and socio-political prominence in the region during the AD 900s. By AD 1000, Schroda’s influence had declined due to a shift in regional socio-political dynamics linked to the establishment of K2. These regional developments coincided with a change from the Zhizo to Leokwe ceramic styles, which has been used to establish a multicomponent occupation at Schroda. However, the identification of different depositional horizons was limited to one of six excavated areas at the site. Through an integrated analysis of ceramic style traits, glass bead sequences and original stratigraphic descriptions, this study presents a revised chronology for the five largest excavated areas at Schroda. The updated chronologies place the excavated material within its correct historical context and enable phase-specific comparisons of all material culture from Schroda. Five new radiocarbon dates inform on the timing of the Zhizo/Leokwe transition and the abandonment of the site.
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South Africa has a rich record of Acheulean sites, but the Early Acheulean is thus far limited to a handful of secondary context sites. These are in the Cradle of Humankind (ca 1.7 to 1.0 Ma) in Gauteng Province in the northeast and in two site complexes in the Northern Cape Province in the interior of the country. This paper describes the typology and technology of an assemblage from Rietputs 15, Northern Cape Province, where burial dating with cosmogenic nuclides has demonstrated the first Early Acheulean assemblages beyond Gauteng Province (Gibbon et al., 2009). The assemblage is named ACP after its location (Artefact Collection Pit) near Rietputs Pit 1, which has an age of ca 1.7 Ma and is at the western side of the Rietputs farm. Organized core reduction strategies are absent from ACP, but they are present in a second assemblage collected from Rietputs Pit 5 over 2 km to the east in the same site complex, where dates from five gravels, all of which contain stone tools, range from ca 1.2 to 1.6 Ma. The Pit 5 assemblage with organized core flaking strategies is directly dated to ca 1.3 Ma (Leader et al., in press). Also at the nearby site of Canteen Kopje, an assemblage excavated from a layer dated to 1.51 Ma contains organized core reduction strategies (Leader 2014). Based on these technological comparisons and on the comparable nature of the large cutting tools (LCTs) with those from the Cradle of Humankind, we interpret the ACP site at Rietputs 15 to be older than 1.3–1.5 Ma. This assemblage adds to our understanding of the Early Acheulean in South Africa. Large cutting tools in the two regions were made both on flakes and cobbles and show much variability in plan form. Pick-like forms are common but not exclusive. The LCTs from both regions are described to provide a picture of Early Acheulean adaptations in South Africa.
Article
Balerno Shelter 3 is a small shelter on the farm Balerno near the Pont Drift border post in the Shashe-Limpopo confluence area, South Africa. It was occupied at times by small groups of hunter-gatherers over a period of 1000-1600 years, possibly as part of a pattern of aggregation and dispersal. Three phases of use/occupation are identified, based on patterns in the lithic assemblage, which are supported by other non-lithic artefact categories such as ostrich eggshell. These phases include a late first-millennium BC period of use, dating from the third to fourth centuries BC; an early first-millennium AD phase dating to between the second and fifth centuries AD; and a third and final phase dating from the fifth century AD onwards. Some contact with farmers who settled in the area seems likely, since a glass bead and several burnished (possibly) Mapungubwe period (AD 1220-1300) pottery sherds were found at the shelter in the younger spits.
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This paper has presented an interim report of an archaeological survey in Northern Tuli, Botswana, near Mapungubwe, K2 and Schroda, as well as excavated LSA sites such as Balerno Main and Little Muck Shelter. The final results will help us better understand and interpret the archaeological record on the Greater Mapungubwe Landscape. Future studies will expand on the LSA and agricultural sequence in the Northern Tuli and address questions of rock art authorship and variability on both sides of the Limpopo River, incorporating this information into the broader archaeological framework for the region.
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