Holocene book review: Quaternary Environmental Change in Southern Africa: Physical and Human Dimensions

  • Iziko Museums of South Africa
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The Middle Stone Age (MSA) of southern Africa, and in particular its Still Bay and Howie-sons Poort lithic traditions, represents a period of dramatic subsistence, cultural, and technological innovation by our species, Homo sapiens. Climate change has frequently been postulated as a primary driver of the appearance of these innovative behaviours, with researchers invoking either climate instability as a reason for the development of buffering mechanisms, or environmentally stable refugia as providing a stable setting for experimentation. Testing these alternative models has proved intractable, however, as existing regional palaeoclimatic and palaeoenvironmental records remain spatially, stratigraphically, and chronologically disconnected from the archaeological record. Here we report high-resolution records of environmental shifts based on stable carbon and oxygen isotopes in ostrich eggshell (OES) fragments, faunal remains, and shellfish assemblages excavated from two key MSA archaeological sequences, Blombos Cave and Klipdrift Shelter. We compare these records with archaeological material remains in the same strata. The results from both sites, spanning the periods 98–73 ka and 72–59 ka, respectively, show significant changes in vegetation, aridity, rainfall seasonality, and sea temperature in the vicinity of the sites during periods of human occupation. While these changes clearly influenced human subsistence strategies, we find that the remarkable cultural and technological innovations seen in the sites cannot be linked directly to climate shifts. Our results demonstrate the PLOS ONE |
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The oldest contemporary human mitochondrial lineages arose in Africa. The earliest divergent extant maternal offshoot, namely haplogroup L0d, is represented by click-speaking forager peoples of southern Africa. Broadly defined as Khoesan, contemporary Khoesan are today largely restricted to the semidesert regions of Namibia and Botswana, whereas archeological, historical, and genetic evidence promotes a once broader southerly dispersal of click-speaking peoples including southward migrating pastoralists and indigenous marine-foragers. No genetic data have been recovered from the indigenous peoples that once sustained life along the southern coastal waters of Africa prepastoral arrival. In this study we generate a complete mitochondrial genome from a 2,330-year-old male skeleton, confirmed through osteological and archeological analysis as practicing a marine-based forager existence. The ancient mtDNA represents a new L0d2c lineage (L0d2c1c) that is today, unlike its Khoe-language based sister-clades (L0d2c1a and L0d2c1b) most closely related to contemporary indigenous San-speakers (specifically Ju). Providing the first genomic evidence that prepastoral Southern African marine foragers carried the earliest diverged maternal modern human lineages, this study emphasizes the significance of Southern African archeological remains in defining early modern human origins.
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The Earth's climate system is driven by a complex interplay of internal chaotic dynamics and natural and anthropogenic external forcing. Recent instrumental data have shown a remarkable degree of asynchronicity between Northern Hemisphere and Southern Hemisphere temperature fluctuations, thereby questioning the relative importance of internal versus external drivers of past as well as future climate variability. However, large-scale temperature reconstructions for the past millennium have focused on the Northern Hemisphere, limiting empirical assessments of inter-hemispheric variability on multi-decadal to centennial timescales. Here, we introduce a new millennial ensemble reconstruction of annually resolved temperature variations for the Southern Hemisphere based on an unprecedented network of terrestrial and oceanic palaeoclimate proxy records. In conjunction with an independent Northern Hemisphere temperature reconstruction ensemble, this record reveals an extended cold period (1594-1677) in both hemispheres but no globally coherent warm phase during the pre-industrial (1000-1850) era. The current (post-1974) warm phase is the only period of the past millennium where both hemispheres are likely to have experienced contemporaneous warm extremes. Our analysis of inter-hemispheric temperature variability in an ensemble of climate model simulations for the past millennium suggests that models tend to overemphasize Northern Hemisphere-Southern Hemisphere synchronicity by underestimating the role of internal ocean-atmosphere dynamics, particularly in the ocean-dominated Southern Hemisphere. Our results imply that climate system predictability on decadal to century timescales may be lower than expected based on assessments of external climate forcing and Northern Hemisphere temperature variations alone.
The Cenozoic of Southern Africa: Oxford Monographs on Geology and Geophysics
  • Tc Partridge
  • Maud
  • T C Partridge
  • R R Maud
Partridge TC and Maud RR (2000) The Cenozoic of Southern Africa: Oxford Monographs on Geology and Geophysics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.