The Middle Stone Age

What is the Middle Stone Age?

The period that archaeologists call the ‘Middle Stone Age’ (or MSA) somewhat unsurprisingly occurs between the Earlier and Later Stone Ages (ESA and LSA). These ‘Ages’ are essentially arbitrary time-spans that researchers use to group together sites and artefacts that share common features and help us to make sense of the ‘bigger picture’ of our past. We call them Stone Ages because most of our evidence comes from stone tools. Stone is a sharp and durable material that was readily available for past people to make tools out of (people did not discover how to make objects out of metal until about 8000 years ago) and unlike other materials like wood which decays, it preserves for millions of years and is often the only form of evidence that remains.

Figure by Emily Hallinan

The muddle in the middle

The MSA refers to the period between approximately 300,000 and 40,000 years ago and is regarded as the period when our ancestors became anatomically and behaviourally like modern humans today. The MSA has been described as the “muddle in the middle” because it is difficult to define where it starts and ends.

The MSA developed out of the last phase of the ESA – the Acheulean. From 1.76 million years ago,  the characteristic stone tool type was the Acheulean handaxe – a large pointed tool flaked on both of its faces (‘bifacial’). These tools were made by Homo erectus and they are found across Africa, Europe and further east into Asia. They would have served as an effective multi-purpose tool for a range of foraging tasks such as butchering animals, cutting wood or digging for edible roots. Handaxes persisted for over a million years and may have been critical in allowing Homo erectus to expand out of Africa into other parts of the world.

Modern human origins

Around 300,000 to 200,000 years ago, a new human species evolved in Africa – Homo sapiens. Scientists use the term ‘anatomically modern humans’ because these people developed the physical features that define us as humans today. However, there is some debate over whether these earliest members of our species had the same cognitive abilities and complex behaviours as us. We therefore distinguish ‘behavioural modernity’ from anatomical modernity.

The origins of behavioural modernity are a controversial topic, but increasing evidence particularly from southern Africa shows that from at least 100,000 years ago, humans were capable of symbolic expression through engraving and drawing abstract patterns, beads and the use of red ochre paint, as well as complex technologies that gave them distinct advantages as hunter-gatherers.

Archaeological evidence of modern human behaviour from Africa and Europe
Source: F. d’Errico & C. Stringer (2012) (see Figure 1 caption for full image credits)

Innovations in technology

The major technological change we see in the MSA is the production of stone tools using the Levallois technique. This involves removing stone flakes in a particular sequence in order to get a specific end-product. Levallois requires planning ahead to shape or ‘prepare’ the core, using angles to control how force moves through the rock to produce your desired shape. By following different steps but using the same principles, this product could be a large flake, a point, or an elongated blade.

Stone-knapping steps to create a Levallois flake
Source: José-Manuel Benito Álvarez CC BY-SA
By following a different set of steps, you can create a point
Source: José-Manuel Benito Álvarez CC BY-SA

The big development with Levallois technology is that you can produce ready-shaped flake tools that could be attached to a wooden haft rather than simply hand-held handaxes or sharpened sticks. One advantage of this relates to hunting – if you can attach a stone point to a long piece of wood to make a spear that can be thrown, it is more effective and much less risky than getting close enough to use a thrusting spear. The advent of throwing spears paved the way for later developments in projectile technology in the MSA, with atlatl or spear-thrower which adds power and range to a projectile spear, and the even more deadly bow and arrow.

Another key feature of MSA archaeology compared with earlier periods is that we see an increase in diversity across the African continent. Populations in different regions of Africa developed their own ways of doing things, some became isolated, others remained connected. The role of climatic change in driving cultural innovation is debated, but shifting environments certainly would have affected the areas where humans were able to survive. People either had to adapt their behaviour, migrate into new environments or risk their group dying out.

Modern humans and regional point styles in the African MSA (after McBrearty & Brooks 2000)
Figure by Emily Hallinan. Image sources (clockwise): Met museum; Y. Sahle; N. Blegen; M. Will; S. Soriano; K. Douze; J. Wilkins; C. Clark; N. Taylor; R. Iovita

Stone tools show how people in different parts of Africa adapted and diversified their technology. The next section introduces a specific MSA technology found in North Africa, called ‘Nubian technology’, and explains why our recent discovery of it in South Africa is significant.

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