The Katanda harpoons

16 Mar
Recently David Sánchez (of Noticias de Prehistoria – Prehistoria al Día[es]) asked me to collaborate in a series at his blog on the early prehistory and expansion of Homo sapiens, from the viewpoints of both archaeology and population genetics. I gladly accepted, of course. The first articles will be published in the next days/weeks at his blog (I plan to make synthesis of them in English here but not full translations – too much work). The bulk of the archaeological materials will be done by David, while I am taking responsibility mostly for the genetic aspects.
As he has been preparing the first article on the African Middle Stone Age, David stumbled upon a quite fascinating curiosity that was unknown to both and is probably of interest for the readers of this blog: the existence of well-finished proto-harpoons in the MSA of Katanda (North Kivu, D.R. Congo, near Uganda – not to be confused with another larger town named Katanda in the Kasaï-Oriental province) dated to some 110-80,000 years ago. 
I can only imagine that this quite unknown but fascinating materials should be of interest to the readers of this blog. 
Source: Dictionary of Ichtyology

The main direct reference for this unusual finding is:
J.E. Yellen et al., A middle stone age worked bone industry from Katanda, Upper Semliki Valley, Zaire. Science 1995. Pay per viewLINK [doi:10.1126/science.7725100]


Three archaeological sites at Katanda on the Upper Semliki River in the Western Rift Valley of Zaire have provided evidence for a well-developed bone industry in a Middle Stone Age context. Artifacts include both barbed and unbarbed points as well as a daggerlike object. Dating by both direct and indirect means indicate an age of approximately 90,000 years or older. Together with abundant fish (primarily catfish) remains, the bone technology indicates that a complex subsistence specialization had developed in Africa by this time. The level of behavioral competence required is consistent with that of upper Paleolithic Homo sapiens sapiens. These data support an African origin of behaviorally as well as biologically modern humans.

This discovery has been mentioned later on by more accessible materials, for example: D’Errico & Stringer 2011, D’Errico 2006 (in French) or a book by Luis Raposo (in Spanish). 
Regardless of the speculations about the so-called “modern human behavior”, what it clearly means is that those ancient Africans produced well-finished barbed proto-harpoons (not known of otherwise until Magdalenian times in Europe) and used them to fish in the Semliki river (being one of the earliest documented cases of this kind of economy).

Posted by on March 16, 2013 in Africa, fishing, Middle Paleolithic, MSA


4 responses to “The Katanda harpoons

  1. eurologist

    March 16, 2013 at 1:42 pm

    Fascinating.However, given that this is a 1995 paper, I would like to know how well-established the dating (-method) was.

  2. Maju

    March 16, 2013 at 1:55 pm

    It is 1995, not 1925! :DThey mention direct and indirect means, what surely means (not having access to the paper myself) either Uranium-series or TL for the direct means and stratigraphy for the indirect ones. David did mention, quite vaguely, that "some" are doing as you: questioning the validity of the dates (probably just out of sheer skepticism) but many others do accept them as perfectly valid. As of now I have not read any document that challenges them however, just that vague email reference, so I'm taking them as valid, especially because the growing evidence of "advanced" behavior in the MSA and other early Sapiens cultures.

  3. andrew

    March 16, 2013 at 7:13 pm

    Harpoon fishing with tools made from a material other than stone is one of the most distinctive behavioral signatures of H. Sapiens as compared to archaics. I've seen pre-Upper Paleolithic reports of them in Africa before (although only to 75,000 years BP), so this older date is a good fit. Since it coincides with new and improved Out of Africa dates, it also doesn't rule out the hypothesis that Out of Africa may have come at a time of a behavioral modernity revolution relative to pre-Out of Africa era modern humans.

  4. Maju

    March 16, 2013 at 8:02 pm

    But it is not a tech that is common among Paleolithic H. sapiens, being only found in certain cultures. Personally, while I find this fascinating, I think it says little about "behavioral modernity" because, honestly I find "behavioral modernity" a quasi-religious dogma. For example, commenting earlier with David by email, he mentioned as support for the dates that D'Errico supports it while he has tried to debunk the Neanderthal flute of Djive Babe. My answer was that he was obviously cherry-picking, along with Stringer, in order to push their apparent agenda of "behavioral modernity" speculation. I think that BOTH these harpoons and the Djive Babe flute are examples of a "behavioral modernity" that is not easy to discern among the various Homo species. There's no line separating the behavioral modernity of Neanderthals and Homo sapiens, nor really any such very clear line separating either with their predecesors of distant relatives of the Homo erectus senso lato category. "Behavioral modernity" is overrated and quasi-religious IMO. Why not to draw a line at the first computer, the first automobile or the first gunpowder weapon? Those are things that clearly separate us from Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons alike. By comparison they are much much closer to each other: the later are us without modern science and the former… well almost the same. Also when they begin ranting about "behavioral modernity" they end up talking of religion. That's because most of them are searching for the moment in which their imaginary God gave us intelligence, as the Bible says (but they interpret liberally). There's no such moment, even if there may be some more marked transition periods and others that are more relaxed, in general the transforming power of human collective and historical intelligence tends to accumulate towards increasing yields all the time. It culminates in us but it was us all the time, even when we were monkeys and even when we were worms. There's no single magic gate but many.


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