Article

A charcoal study from the Middle Stone Age, 77,000 to 65,000 years ago, at Sibudu, KwaZulu-Natal

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Abstract

New charcoal identifications are reported from the archaeological site, Sibudu Cave, KwaZulu-Natal. From six layers dated 77,000 to 65,000 years ago, 617/769 specimens were identified to 54 different woody taxa and of these 37 were identified to species level. The wood bundles are mostly from taxa suitable as fuel (including tinder); to a lesser extent there is wood from plants that may have been collected for medicinal purposes. The woody taxa in combustion features vary spatially, suggesting that specific wood may have been collected for predetermined purposes. Low and medium-density wood occurs in the combustion features more often than high-density wood and this supports previous studies which concluded that moderate fire temperatures were desired and that people deliberately selected wood types to achieve such temperatures. Identified woody taxa are from evergreen forest and savanna or cliff scrub vegetation communities so a mosaic of habitats is implied. Trees such as Afrocarpus/Podocarpus, Ptaeroxylon obliquum, Buxus macowanii, Harpephyllum caffrum and Curtisia dentata belong to forest, Searsia spp. to the forest margins, and Protea caffra and Erica caffra to cliff scrub. Marine Isotope Stages (MIS) 5a and 4 are represented in the 77,000 to 65,000-year-old occupations at Sibudu and during the cooler conditions that probably existed in MIS4 the numbers of deciduous genera increased together with taxa diversity, possibly implying that both the forest and forest margins expanded. Numbers of evergreen genera remained constant through time.

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... Charcoal remains in archaeological sites are an important source of environmental data that are preserved from the past and provide a means for understanding plant-human-environment interactions throughout prehistory (Esterhuysen and Mitchell, 1996;Asouti and Austin, 2005;Cartwright et al., 2014;Lennox and Wadley, 2019). In southern Africa, studies of archaeological charcoal have contributed to the reconstruction of vegetation history of the subcontinent (Prior and Price Williams, 1985;Scholtz, 1986;Tusenius, 1986;February 1992;Shackleton and Prins, 1993;Esterhuysen and Mitchell, 1996;Cartwright and Parkington, 1997;February, 2000;Allott, 2006;Cartwright et al., 2014;Chikumbirike, 2014;Bamford, 2015;Lennox and Wadley, 2019). ...
... Charcoal remains in archaeological sites are an important source of environmental data that are preserved from the past and provide a means for understanding plant-human-environment interactions throughout prehistory (Esterhuysen and Mitchell, 1996;Asouti and Austin, 2005;Cartwright et al., 2014;Lennox and Wadley, 2019). In southern Africa, studies of archaeological charcoal have contributed to the reconstruction of vegetation history of the subcontinent (Prior and Price Williams, 1985;Scholtz, 1986;Tusenius, 1986;February 1992;Shackleton and Prins, 1993;Esterhuysen and Mitchell, 1996;Cartwright and Parkington, 1997;February, 2000;Allott, 2006;Cartwright et al., 2014;Chikumbirike, 2014;Bamford, 2015;Lennox and Wadley, 2019). The southern African Middle Stone Age record is rich with evidence of the innovative activities that mark important human behavioural evolutionary stages (Lombard et al., 2012). ...
... Hearths are found in all layers and are generally defined by flat circular ash remains, burnt soil sediments at the bottom and with concentrations of charcoal at the centre (Wadley and Jacobs, 2006). Botanical remains from their deposit show evidence for the collection of plants for many uses (Allott, 2006;Wadley et al., 2011;Lennox and Wadley, 2019). ...
Article
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... Finally, given that macromammals can serve as a somewhat coarse indicator of climate-and because they may not be taken in direct proportion with their availability in the environment-it is relevant to consider other data which speak to paleoenvironmental conditions during the pre-SB and SB. Looking first to the macrobotanical record, a recent analysis of the charcoal assemblage incorporates samples from BS and RGS (Lennox and Wadley 2019; charcoal is present in LBG, but it was not included in that study). In comparing the number of evergreen vs. deciduous genera represented in the sample, Lennox and Wadley found that evergreen taxa dominate the assemblage in both the pre-SB and SB, accounting for > 70% of genera in BS and > 60% in RGS; deciduous taxa present include those that occur primarily on forest fringes. ...
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... A slightly less conservative treatment of the data involves expanding the sample to include those remains identified as most likely belonging to a given species (indicated with "cf." in Table 4); however, the results are again unchanged (ESM Table S3). These results are consistent with those deriving from analyses of the avian fauna, charcoal, and isotopic data, all of which suggest that forest comprised an important component of the vegetation near the site (e.g., Lennox and Wadley 2019;Robinson and Wadley 2018;Val 2016). The implications of this will be considered further in the discussion. ...
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... Charcoal remains are recovered in abundance from many MSA archaeological sites and are used, in conjunction with other environmental proxies, to reconstruct past climates, vegetation histories, and evidence of wood use (Cartwright, 2013;Cartwright et al., 2014;Esterhuysen & Mitchell, 1996;House & Bamford, 2019;Lennox & Bamford, 2015). Anthracological studies have focused intensely on using wood anatomy to describe broad changes in climate and vegetation, taking full advantage of the sensitivity of the species-diverse woody vegetation to the many climatic zones of southern Africa (Allott, 2006;Cartwright et al., 2014;Esterhuysen et al., 1999;Lennox & Wadley, 2019). This is allowed by the adaptive traits of trees that make each species thrive in a limited range of climatic conditions and, therefore, make them excellent climate proxies. ...
... Most charcoal studies in southern Africa have refrained from quantifying woody species identified in an assemblage based on the number of charcoal fragments analyzed. Instead, they have opted to use the presence of species (or a group of species) which are indicative of vegetation communities, a method that works best for the diverse flora of southern Africa (Cartwright & Parkington, 1997;Cartwright et al., 2014;Esterhuysen & Mitchell, 1996;February, 1992;Lennox & Wadley, 2019). For example, Cartwright has rejected the idea that the number of charcoal fragments can indicate relative abundance of different species present or even collected in the past (Cartwright & Parkington, 1997). ...
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... The pre-Still Bay and Still Bay faunal assemblages were both dominated by taxa that preferentially inhabit closed forested habitats with dense underbrush. This was consistent with the analyses of avian fauna (Val 2016), charcoal (Lennox and Wadley 2019), and isotopic data (Robinson and Wadley 2018), which all indicated a persistent forest component through this period. As such, there is little local evidence for a climate-induced hiatus nor for a break in point production at this time at Sibudu. ...
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... At Sibudu, tooth enamel from pre-Still Bay ungulates has lower δ 13 C and δ 18 O values than those later in the sequence. This implies a more closed, likely heavily forested, and wetter habitats than subsequent phases (Robinson and Wadley 2018), supported by anthracological studies (Lennox and Wadley 2019) and remains of forest-dwelling mammals such as blue duiker (Philantomba monticola) and bushpig (Potamochoerus larvatus) (Jamie Clark, pers. comm., August, 2018). ...
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Inside Wood is an Internet-accessible wood anatomy reference, research, and teaching tool. The Inside Wood database has coded wood anatomical descriptions based on the IAWA List of Microscopic Features for Hardwood Identification and is accompanied by a collection of photomicrographs. As of November 2010 there were over 5,800 descriptions and 36,000 images of modern woods, and over 1,600 descriptions and 2,000 images of fossil woods. CITES-listed timber species and other endangered woody plants are included in this digital collection hosted by North Carolina State University's library. This web site has value in helping with wood identification because it has a multiple entry key that allows searching by presence or absence of IAWA features and it serves as a virtual reference collection whereby descriptions and images can be retrieved by searching by scientific or common name or other keywords.
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Wonderwerk Cave in the Northern Cape Province of South Africa has a record of occupation spanning some 2 million years, comprising flora, fauna and cultural artifacts and, therefore, potentially, has the most complete macrobotanical record associated with hominin/human activities. The flora is described here for the lower levels: the Oldowan Stratum 12 (ca. 2 Ma) to the Late Pleistocene Stratum 5 (ca. 14 ka). The older material includes calcified roots, leaf litter of small dicotyledonous twigs and seeds, grass and sedge culms. From Stratum 5, there are about 134 pieces of charcoal that have been identified to eight woody species. Assuming the firewood was of local origin, the climate during the latest Pleistocene would have been slightly more mesic than today’s arid to semi-arid climate.
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Fossil woods found in the Australopithecus deposits at Sterkfontein Caves, Gauteng, South Africa, are described. The sediments are dated at 2.6-2.8 million years. The woods have been identified as the liana Dichapetalum cf. mombuttense and the shrub, Anastrabe integerrima. Today there is only one species of Dichapetalum, D. cymosum, in South Africa, so the presence of this typically central African gallery forest liana is evidence that at least refugia of dense, humid forest-type vegetation occurred at Sterkfontein during the Pliocene. Anastrabe integerrima grows today on forest margins along and inland from the east and southeast coasts of South Africa. The presence of this plant in the fossil record implies that rainfall was higher during the Pliocene and that gallery forest occurred in an area where today grasslands predominate. Rarely are fossil hominids and plants found together, so this deposit has potential for palaeoclimatic reconstructions.
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Biochemical analyses of residues preserved on ethno-historical and archaeological artefacts increase our understanding of past indigenous knowledge systems. The interpretation of biochemical traces is, however, difficult. Problems that can hamper credible interpretations of ethno-historical or archaeological residues include incomplete knowledge about local natural products, limited published data about product applications, and overestimation of the abilities of the analytical techniques to make specific identifications. In an initial attempt to address some of the challenges, we discuss arrow poison as a case in point, and we provide complete, updated inventories of known southern African poison ingredients and recipes, suspected poisons, and the current state of knowledge about these toxins and their effects. We also suggest that discoveries of ancient arrow poison, and the technical steps involved in early toxicology, have the potential to indicate levels of human cognition.
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Ju/'hoan hunters from Nyae Nyae, near Tsumkwe in Namibia, demonstrate the manufacture of three fixative pastes made from plant extracts, and poison made from grubs and plant extracts. Ammocharis coranica and Terminalia sericea produce simple glue. Ozoroa schinzii latex mixed with carbonized Aristeda adscensionis grass is a compound adhesive. Composite poison is made from Chrysomelid grub viscera mixed with salivary extracts of Acacia mellifera inner bark and the tuber sap of Asparagus exuvialis. In order to document potential variability in the chaîne opératoire, and to eliminate inherent biases associated with unique observations, we studied manufacturing processes in three separate Nyae Nyae villages. Although there are methodological similarities in the Nyae Nyae area, we observed a few differences in contemporary traditions of poison manufacture. For example, some hunters make powder from Asparagus exuvialis tuber sap by boiling, reducing, hardening and grinding it, while others simply use heated sap. The Ju/'hoan hunting kit provides insights for archaeologists, but we must exercise caution when looking for continuity between prehistoric and historical technical systems. Some traditions have been lost to modern hunters, while others are new. We should also expect variability in the Stone Age because of geographically restricted resources. Simple glue, compound adhesive, and poison recipes identified in the Stone Age have no modern equivalents. By about 60,000 years ago at Diepkloof, simple glue was used for hafting tools, but at similarly-aged Sibudu there are recipes that combine red ochre powder with plant and/or animal ingredients. At Border Cave, novel poisons and compound adhesives were used in the Early Later Stone Age. It is possible that the complexity that we record in the manufacture of fixative pastes and poison used by Ju/'hoan hunters represents a hafting system both similar to and different from that observed at the Stone Age sites of Diepkloof, Sibudu, and Border Cave.
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Africa's Middle Stone Age (MSA) may have lasted almost half a million years, but its earliest expression is not yet well understood. The MSA is best known for innovations that appear in the archaeological record at various times after about 200,000 years ago with the first appearance of Homo sapiens. These novel behaviours embrace hafting technology, the use of compound paints and adhesives, ingenious lithic technology that included pressure flaking and the heat treatment of rock, the engraving of ochre and eggshell with geometric designs, the stringing of shell beads and the production of a wide range of bone implements. Such innovations might have been linked to new types of social behaviour stimulated by demographic pulses and movements within and out of the continent. Population shifts may have occurred repeatedly during the MSA. Southern African sites seem concentrated in the interior of the subcontinent before 130 kya. Thus, the florescence of MSA innovations described here appears to have coincided with the dispersal after 130 kya of populations from the interior to mountainous areas, but, more particularly, to the coastal stretches of the southern and western Cape. Coastal sites are the focus of much of southern Africas research into the MSA and some of the continents most esteemed sites are coastal ones, particularly those containing iconic Still Bay and Howiesons Poort technocomplexes. By 58 kya occupations tended once more to shift away from the southern coast and back into the interior, or to the eastern seaboard. Some of these later MSA sites have extensive footprints, implying population growth or repeated occupations. Regional and even local variability is characteristic of stone assemblages of the time, while sites seem to have fewer ornaments or decorated items than was formerly the case. The variability in late MSA lithic assemblages is matched by apparent flexibility in the timing of the transfer from the MSA to the Later Stone Age.
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New excavations at Border Cave use high-resolution techniques, including FT-IR, for sediment samples and thin sections of micromorphology blocks from stratigraphy. These show that sediments have different moisture regimes, both spatially and chronologically. The site preserves desiccated grass bedding in multiple layers and they, along with seeds, rhizomes, and charcoal, provide a profile of palaeo-vegetation through time. A bushveld vegetation community is implied before 100,000 years ago. The density of lithics varies considerably through time, with high frequencies occurring before 100,000 years ago where a putative MSA 1/Pietersburg Industry was recovered. The highest percentage frequencies of blades and blade fragments were found here. In Members 1 BS and 1 WA, called Early Later Stone Age by Beaumont, we recovered large flakes from multifacial cores. Local rhyolite was the most common rock used for making stone tools, but siliceous minerals were popular in the upper members.
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This article presents the results of the anatomical identification by scanning electron microscopy of wood charcoal from excavations in 2011 at Elands Bay Cave (EBC), South Africa. The samples are from Robberg Group D layers (18/19 ka cal BP); the Early Later Stone Age (LSA) Group F layers (22–24 ka cal BP), and the late Middle Stone Age (MSA) Group H-I-J layers (35–39ka cal BP). Noticeable differences in the vegetation are present in LSA layers, which have more diverse thicket elements represented in Groups D and F than in Group H-I-J layers—with their heavier reliance on Afromontane and mesic thicket taxa during the late MSA. Published charcoal results from previous excavations at EBC chart a progressive change over time from xeric thicket and asteraceous shrubland vegetation, through proteoid fynbos and general thicket to mesic thicket, riverine woodland and proteoid fynbos, ultimately to Afromontane forest. Climatic or soil moisture factors may have played a significant part and contributed to some or all of the taxa having very different phytogeographical distributions compared to their modern counterparts, but is also necessary to consider to what extent the people using EBC at different times might have collected (and selected) woody resources from a mosaic of vegetational communities, some local, some far away.
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Sibudu rockshelter, an archaeological site in KwaZulu-Natal, has evidence of the local vegetation, environment and wood use during the Middle Stone Age, from well-preserved seeds and charcoal, approximately 77–38 000 years ago. In order to confidently identify some charcoal taxa, closely related species were studied in detail. Modern wood was charred and examined under the light microscope and a combination of anatomical features was used to distinguish the various taxa. Tarchonanthus parvicapitulatus P.P.J. Herman (syn. in part Tarchonanthus camphoratus L.) is an evergreen, woodland shrub or tree, which is tolerant of hot, dry, salty or icy conditions. Essential oils from the leaves have antimicrobial and insecticidal properties. The camphor smoke is used in traditional African medicine, the aromatic leaves are used in organic camp bedding and the hard, heavy wood is insect resistant. Since the wood anatomy of this shrub is very similar to Brachylaena discolor DC, another woody member of the Asteraceae, the modern reference charcoal has been studied, to distinguish between these and other species. The confirmed presence of aromatic T. parvicapitulatus in hearths probably implies deliberate burning for insect repellent smoke.
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The wood and bark structure of Leucosidea sericea and two species of Cliffortia, the South African members of the tribe Sanguisorbeae (Rosaceae) are described. These two genera share few anatomical traits (the presence of schizo-rhexigenous intercellular spaces in the cortex, almost exclusively simple perforation plates, small alternate intervessel pits, etc.) with other Rosaceae. However, Leucosidea shows a distinct storied structure of the secondary phloem and wood as well as stratification of the secondary phloem, with conductive elements and nonsclerified crystalliferous axial parenchyma arranged into alternating bands. These conditions are recorded for the first time for the family Rosaceae. In contrast to Leucosidea, two species of Cliffortia show neither storied structure of secondary phloem and xylem, nor stratification of secondary phloem.
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Here, we present direct taphonomic evidence for the exploitation of birds by hunter-gatherers in the Middle Stone Age of South Africa as far as ∼77 ka. The bird assemblage from Sibudu Cave, KwaZulu-Natal, was analysed for bone surface modifications. Cut-marks associated with skinning, defleshing, and disarticulation, perforations on distal humeri produced during disarticulation of the forewing, peeling, and human tooth marks were observed on bird bones (i.e., mostly pigeons, doves, Galliformes, waders, and raptors) recovered from pre-Still Bay, Still Bay, Howiesons Poort, and post-Howiesons Poort techno-complexes. We conducted experiments to butcher, disarticulate, cook, and consume pigeon and dove carcasses, in order to create a comparative collection of bone surface modifications associated with human consumption of these birds. Human/bird interactions can now be demonstrated outside of Europe and prior to 50 ka. The evidence sheds new light on Middle Stone Age subsistence strategies in South Africa and introduces a fresh argument to the debate regarding the early emergence of behaviours usually associated with Later Stone Age hunter-gatherers.
Article
Spatial analyses of Palaeolithic sites typically defined by hearth-related assemblages have been mostly based on lithic and faunal remains. By using spatial analysis methods in conjunction with analytical units with higher temporal resolution than typical stratigraphic units, synchronic and diachronic relationships between artifacts deposited during successive occupation events have been elucidated. Spatial analyses applied to archaeobotanical remains are scarce, and when available, are typically focused on carpological remains (seeds and fruits). The lack of spatial indicators among anthraco-logical remains hampers obtaining significant data linked to the relationships established between the combustion features and scattered charcoal fragments recovered from excavated occupation surfaces. To address this problem, the charcoal assemblage from El Salt Stratigraphic Unit (SU) Xb (Archae-osedimentary Facies Association 2 [AFA 2]) is analyzed using spatial analysis methods. Results suggest that the integration of anthracological remains into a palimpsest dissection analyses is vital to better understand the relationship between combustion structures and activity areas. These results highlight the utility of spatial and statistical methods as important tools for future anthracological analyses to provide meaningful information related to taxa distribution and the last firewood used in combustion structures.
Thesis
Direct evidence for Central African vegetation history is primarily based on pollen analysis. In addition, charcoal analysis has proven successful for palaeobotanical reconstructions in moderate and arid regions. Yet in the tropics this discipline meets fundamental obstacles inherent in species-richness and the lack of a systematic identification procedure. Therefore, the first part of this PhD presents a transparent identification procedure for Central African charcoal, based on large databases and well-defined wood-anatomical characters. The procedure uses complementary imaging techniques and a methodology for the evaluation of identification reliability. The validity of the protocol has been proven by the mutual consistency of charcoal identification results and compatibility with vegetation history based on pollen research. In the second part of this PhD the charcoal identification and evaluation methodologies are applied on charcoal fragments found in 7 soil profiles excavated in the southern Mayumbe forest (Bas-Congo, DRCongo). Each soil profile yielded one or more charcoal assemblages, each archiving a palaeofire. Radiocarbon dating showed that all recorded palaeofires occurred during or shortly after one out of three well-known dry climate anomalies: the 8.2 ka BP event, the third millennium BP rainforest crisis (3000-2000 cal yr BP) and the Medieval Climate Anomaly (MCA, 1000 - 700 cal yr BP). During and after these periods the rainforests were very sensitive to drought and fire, primarily around open patches during the dry season. Charcoal identifications show that forests close to the Central African rainforest boundary were locally replaced by savanna and open forest types due to drought, whereas it remained relatively intact deeper in the heart of the rainforest. Moreover, forest regeneration during recovery periods was hampered by recurring forest fires, making it a very slow process. However, artefacts associated with some of the charcoal assemblages show that forest fragmentation was not a direct result of climatic drought only, but it was also reinforced by human disturbance, which started around the third millennium BP but probably became important only during the last millennium.
Article
Seven wood samples from a petrified forest, in situ in ash flow deposits at Cheparain in the Tugen Hills (Kenya) in the Mpesida Beds, were discovered and studied. The age of the Mpesida Formation is estimated to be about 6.3 Ma on the basis of radio-isotope age determinations on the volcanic deposits, which overlie and underlie the sedimentary levels. The wood samples are mineralized with obvious sectors of differential mineralization, and different degrees of silica impregnation. All samples show heteroxylous structures corresponding to angiosperm dicotyledon trees.
Article
Given the apparent chronological association between the Howieson’s Poort (HP; ~65–60 ka)—a sub-stage of the southern African Middle Stone Age (MSA) showing evidence for advanced technology and material culture—and a glacial period, the innovations evidenced in the HP have long been modeled as an adaptation to a particular set of environmental conditions. In this paper, I use faunal data from the HP and post-HP MSA deposits at Sibudu Cave to explore the relationship between environmental and cultural change at the end of the HP. The data indicate that despite the seemingly abrupt shifts in material culture and technology, changes in the local environment and in animal procurement strategies were more gradual in nature, with the most marked changes taking place during the course of the post-HP MSA. These data suggest the need for a greater focus on demographic and/or social explanations for behavioral change during this period.
Article
The southern African region is facing a major information backlog with regard to compiling plant Red Data Lists. This article examines the need for synergising these attempts by enlisting the aid of herbaria. It focuses on integrating ongoing Red Data List work with herbarium activities, with particular emphasis on the network of southern African herbaria. It is proposed that herbaria adopt a means to code specimens with a known or suspected Red Data List status. This practical suggestion presents one way in which southern African herbaria can adopt a more proactive stance towards threatened plant and other conservation-related issues to help overcome this information backlog. The southern African region has much to do, if it is to emulate the international Red Data List status quo, and herbaria are at the centre of this.
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full journal issue presenting new list of agreed upon features for taxonomic work
Article
Pyrotechnology, or the use and control of fire, was important during the Middle Stone Age (MSA). Fire would have been used for tasks such as cooking, hafting and possibly heat treatment ofsilcrete, and it might have been necessary to control the temperatures of the fire to achieve the desired result in these tasks. In this paper I report results from ten actualistic fire experiments conducted to illustrate the effort involved in controlling fire temperatures, such as the planning, labour, maintenance skills, fuel resources and attention to the process. The experiments were conducted in open air, and variables such as wood taxon, wood mass and topsoil horizon were controlled. Dichrostachys cinerea wood was used in all the ten fires. Six of the fires each burned totals of five kg of wood and no logs were added du ring these fires. Four fires each burned totals of 15 kg of wood and logs were gradually added to these fires at intervals of 30 minutes. The temperatures of the fires were recorded using Major Tech MT 632 thermometers attached to thermocouples recording surface and subsurface temperatures during the fires. The peak surface temperatures varied greatly, whereas the subsurface temperatures were more predictable. These experiments suggest that some effort, such as attention to the development and maintenance of the fire, and gathering plentiful fuel resources, is necessary when a specific range of temperatures is needed for an activity.
Article
Charcoal was analysed from late Middle Stone Age (MSA) layers dating to 56.7 ± 2.3 kyr, 53.4 ± 3.2 kyr and 26 000 ± 420 BP. Most of the species identified can be found in the area today and therefore this initial analysis does not provide strong evidence for a different environment in the late MSA. The charcoal assemblages are dominated by riverine and evergreen forest components, although deciduous forest taxa that are found near the cave today are also present. In all levels there are indications of a drier open environment with taxa that occur only in northern parts of South Africa. These species suggest that another environment near the cave was exploited by its inhabitants in addition to the riverine vegetation. The charcoal results complement environmental interpretations from the analysis of seeds and fauna at Sibudu Cave.