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Stone Cold Bush? Earliest Later Stone Age lifeways in central southern Africa

Tuesday 19 April 2016
Van Steenis
Einsteinweg 2
2333 CC Leiden


Gerrit Dusseldorp at San Site

Archaeological work and genetic analyses suggest that the southern African San people represent one of the oldest human lineages, with roots in the earliest Later Stone Age (~40 000 – 18 000 years ago; equivalent with the Upper Palaeolithic). Although the San currently receive much anthropological attention as typical hunter-gatherers, we do not understand how their way-of-life developed and varied historically.

I aim to clarify behavioural developments during the earliest Later Stone Age. This period occurs during the second half of the last Ice Age, and is characterised by unstable global climates. In southern Africa these are not reflected principally in lower temperatures, but rather by increased aridity. Only few sites are known from this period; this may be due to inhospitable conditions, but also to a research focus on earlier and (much) later periods.

San stone tool

The paucity of known early Later Stone Age sites and the very informal stone tools found in them was are assumed to be caused by harsh climatic circumstances. I assess if changing environmental conditions are reflected in the subsistence economy of the sites we know. I analyse all faunal assemblages from central southern Africa to test whether changes in resource exploitation coincide with changes in lithic technology. I conclude that there is a correlation between the two. People likely dealt with the arid and cool circumstances by developing flexible stone tools to exploit a broad resource base.

I show that Stone Age people in southern Africa practiced incredibly varied ways of life across a huge area. This means we cannot view the current San as “typical” proponents of an unchanging way of life.

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