Category Archives: MSA

A western riverine route for human migration to North Africa in the Abbassia Pluvial

Interesting study on paleo-rivers of the Sahara providing insight for a likely route for Homo sapiens to cross the Sahara towards NW Africa.
Tom J. Coulthard et al., Were Rivers Flowing across the Sahara During the Last Interglacial? Implications for Human Migration through Africa. PLoS ONE 2013. Open accessLINK [doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0074834]


Human migration north through Africa is contentious. This paper uses a novel palaeohydrological and hydraulic modelling approach to test the hypothesis that under wetter climates c.100,000 years ago major river systems ran north across the Sahara to the Mediterranean, creating viable migration routes. We confirm that three of these now buried palaeo river systems could have been active at the key time of human migration across the Sahara. Unexpectedly, it is the most western of these three rivers, the Irharhar river, that represents the most likely route for human migration. The Irharhar river flows directly south to north, uniquely linking the mountain areas experiencing monsoon climates at these times to temperate Mediterranean environments where food and resources would have been abundant. The findings have major implications for our understanding of how humans migrated north through Africa, for the first time providing a quantitative perspective on the probabilities that these routes were viable for human habitation at these times.

Figure 2. Simulated probability of surface water during the last interglacial.
figure details Archaeological sites, and an annual probability that a
location has surface water. The archaeological data are derived from a
number of sources (including [42], [66], [67], [68].
The findspots are characterised by Aterian and Middle Stone Age
artefacts such as bifacial foliates and stemmed Aterian points and/or
typical ‘Mousterian’ points, side scrapers and Levallois technology.
Most are represented by surface scatters but where stratified examples
exist these can be shown by dating (OSL and U-series techniques) and
geomorphological setting to belong within MIS 5e [41], [42].

As discussed in other occasions, it seems likely that some genetic remnants of those early migrations are still visible in at least some NW Africans.

See also:


Nubian Complex in Central Arabia

The Nubian Complex MSA techno-culture arrived to Central Arabia, just south of Riyadh seemingly via the South
Rémy Cressard & Yamandú H. Hilbert, A Nubian Complex Site from Central Arabia: Implications for Levallois Taxonomy and Human Dispersals during the Upper Pleistocene. PLoS ONE 2013. Open accessLINK [doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0069221]


Archaeological survey undertaken in central Saudi Arabia has revealed 29 surface sites attributed to the Arabian Middle Paleolithic based on the presence of Levallois blank production methods. Technological analyses on cores retrieved from Al-Kharj 22 have revealed specific reduction modalities used to produce flakes with predetermined shapes. The identified modalities, which are anchored within the greater Levallois concept of core convexity preparation and exploitation, correspond with those utilized during the Middle Stone Age Nubian Complex of northeast Africa and southern Arabia. The discovery of Nubian technology at the Al-Kharj 22 site represents the first appearance of this blank production method in central Arabia. Here we demonstrate how a rigorous use of technological and taxonomic analysis may enable intra-regional comparisons across the Arabian Peninsula. The discovery of Al-Kharj 22 increases the complexity of the Arabian Middle Paleolithic archaeological record and suggests new dynamics of population movements between the southern and central regions of the Peninsula. This study also addresses the dichotomy within Nubian core typology (Types 1 and 2), which was originally defined for African assemblages.

Figure 3. Levallois methods schemata: figuration of product and core shapes for each method.
Preferential Levallois flake production with centripetal preparation;
B: Preferential Levallois point production with unidirectional
convergent preparation; C: Nubian Levallois type 1 with distal divergent
preparation; D: Nubian Levallois type 2 with double lateral
preparation; E: Nubian Levallois type 1/2 with mixed type 1 and type 2
Figure 10. Schematic representation depicting the
three main dorsal preparation types, preparation type 1, 2 and 1/2, and
the proposed reduction succession discussed in the text.

order to facilitate comprehension cores, end-products and preparation
by-products have been color-coded; blue equals type 1 preparation, green
type 2 and yellow type 1/2.

Many more images of interest for experts or qualified amateurs are available in this high quality study. For the less specialized reader it is probably more interesting to ponder the overall extension of the Nubian Complex:

Figure 11. Distribution of main sites with Nubian cores in Eastern Africa and Arabia.
Illustrated cores do not represent actual size. 1. Al-Kharj 22 (this study); 2. Aybut Al Auwal [12]; 3. Shabwa [30]; 4. Hadramawt [5], [6], [27]; 5. Aduma [112]; 6. Gademotta [113]; 7. Asfet [114]; 8. Nazlet Khater 1 [115]; 9. Abydos [66].

The authors argue that Southern and Central Arabia are the Easternmost reaches of this complex, however we cannot forget that the recent discovery of Indian sites with a complex industry, dated to c. 96 Ka ago, of Nubian, Aterian and other MSA affinities challenges this notion.

See also in this blog:


Middle Paleolithic industries of African affinity of the Thar Desert go back to c. 96 Ka ago

Again Team Petraglia revealing fascinating evidence on the Middle Paleolithic dispersal of Homo sapiens, and one that fits well the genetic data (speculative “molecular clock” excluded), as well as with the climatic data.
James Blinkhorn et al., Middle Palaeolithic occupation in the Thar Desert during the Upper Pleistocene: the signature of a modern human exit out of Africa? Quaternary Science Reviews, 2013. Pay per viewLINK [doi:10.1016/j.quascirev.2013.06.012]


The Thar Desert marks the transition from the Saharo-Arabian deserts to the Oriental biogeographical zone and is therefore an important location in understanding hominin occupation and dispersal during the Upper Pleistocene. Here, we report the discovery of stratified Middle Palaeolithic assemblages at Katoati in the north-eastern Thar Desert, dating to Marine Isotope Stages (MIS) 5 and the MIS 4–3 boundary, during periods of enhanced humidity. Hominins procured cobbles from gravels at the site as evidenced by early stages of stone tool reduction, with a component of more formalised point production. The MIS 5c assemblages at Katoati represent the earliest securely dated Middle Palaeolithic occupation of South Asia. Distinctive artefacts identified in both MIS 5 and MIS 4–3 boundary horizons match technological entities observed in Middle Palaeolithic assemblages in South Asia, Arabia and Middle Stone Age sites in the Sahara. The evidence from Katoati is consistent with arguments for the dispersal of Homo sapiens populations from Africa across southern Asia using Middle Palaeolithic technologies.

Possibly the most strikingly unmistakable evidence for a Homo sapiens affiliation of these findings is the Aterian-like tanged point, which is almost identical to another one found previously in Jwalapuram:

Fig. 4. 1) Tanged point from Jwalapuram 22 (adapted from Haslam et al., 2012); 2 & 3)
Tanged point from Katoati.
Not just Aterian: the, visually less obvious, Nubian technology is also present:

Two Levallois cores from S4 and one from S8 exhibit a mixture of distal divergent and lateral preparation of the flaking surface to produce a distale medial ridge resulting in the removal of prepared points (Fig. 3). These reduction schemes are consistent with descriptions of Nubian Levallois technologies (Rose et al., 2011; Usik et al., 2013).

A single flake from S4 presents a combination of distal divergent and lateral removals on the dorsal surface and a prior removal of a pre-determined pointed flake,indicative of the use of Nubian Levallois strategies (Fig. 3).

Table 2. I added at bottom (red) median OSL ages from table 1.

Zhirendong jaw

In synthesis: groups of unmistakably Homo sapiens with obvious African techno-cultural heritage were already within the modern boundaries of the Indian Federation around 96,000 years ago (CI: 109-83 Ka). This totally debunks Mellars’ and Mishra’s recent claims, the usual “molecular clock” nonsense (that so many people seems willing to believe at face value), and widens significantly the earliest plausible dates for the colonization of Asia (beyond Arabia-Palestine-Persian Gulf) making findings like Zhirendong jaw (the oldest non-Palestinian H. sapiens remains out of Africa, dated to c. 100,000 BP) much more credible.

Until today I was very much in doubt about accepting dates of c. 100,000 years ago for the Asian colonization but since right now I am adopting this model as the most likely one. In other words: it seems clear that the people already settled in Arabia and the Persian Gulf “oasis” did not wait for climatic pressure at the end of the Abbassia Pluvial to send them out in search of new lands: they did it when the pluvial period was still holding the arid gates of Asia open for them.
All the evidence adds up well now. 


Note: the full paper was available at at the time of writing this:  HERE and HERE.

Mellars challenges the ‘early out of Africa’ model

I do not have yet access to this potentially key paper, so first of all I want to make an appeal here to share a copy with me (→ email address). Thanks in advance. Update: got it (thanks to all who shared, you people are just great!) I will review it again as soon as possible.

Update (Jun 18): complementary review of the full paper now available here.

Paul Mellars et al., Genetic and archaeological perspectives on the initial modern human colonization of southern Asia. PNAS 2013. Pay per view (6-month embargo) → LINK [doi:10.1073/pnas.1306043110]


It has been argued recently that the initial dispersal of anatomically modern humans from Africa to southern Asia occurred before the volcanic “supereruption” of the Mount Toba volcano (Sumatra) at ∼74,000 y before present (B.P.)—possibly as early as 120,000 y B.P. We show here that this “pre-Toba” dispersal model is in serious conflict with both the most recent genetic evidence from both Africa and Asia and the archaeological evidence from South Asian sites. We present an alternative model based on a combination of genetic analyses and recent archaeological evidence from South Asia and Africa. These data support a coastally oriented dispersal of modern humans from eastern Africa to southern Asia ∼60–50 thousand years ago (ka). This was associated with distinctively African microlithic and “backed-segment” technologies analogous to the African “Howiesons Poort” and related technologies, together with a range of distinctively “modern” cultural and symbolic features (highly shaped bone tools, personal ornaments, abstract artistic motifs, microblade technology, etc.), similar to those that accompanied the replacement of “archaic” Neanderthal by anatomically modern human populations in other regions of western Eurasia at a broadly similar date.

A review has been published at Live Science.

South Asian artifacts from ~30-50 Ka BP.

By “genetic evidence” they obviously mean “molecular clock” nonsense, so it is not evidence at all but mere speculation. However I am indeed very interested in knowing in detail what they mean by “archaeological evidence”, because they seem to get into direct confrontation with much accumulated evidence, first and foremost all of Petraglia’s research in both India and Arabia but also with the quite strong evidence for pre-60 Ka human presence in Australia and growing evidence for pre-60 Ka modern humans in SE Asia (in some cases even as old as 100 Ka). 
It must be said that Paul Mellars has been criticized before a lot for several reasons but very especially for his adherence to the quite speculative “modern human behavior” conjecture and, relatedly, bigotric attitudes against Neanderthal intellectual capabilities, based on nothing too solid. Therefore I’m generally skeptic about what Mellars has to say on this matter because this kind of conclusion is what one would expect from him. 
However Mellars is certainly a distinguished academic and, even if prejudiced and stuck to his own old-school and somewhat Eurocentric interpretations, he knows his trade as archaeologist and prehistorian. So he may be onto something, even if it is not exactly what he wants us to believe. 
For example, it is not impossible that this research may have, unbeknown to the authors, found evidence of a secondary OoA wave (maybe related to the spread of Y-DNA D and mtDNA N?) or even a distinctive evolution in Southern Asian technology prior to the expansion of Western Eurasia. 
It is interesting that they suggest that the 80-60/50 Ka toolkits of India would have been made by Neanderthals, when they are not describing them at all as Mousterian, the almost exclusively Neanderthal techno-culture, or Mousterian-related.
I have some difficulties judging before reading the whole study. However the supplemental material (quite extensive) is freely accessible and for what I can see there:
  1. They dedicate much text to attempt to justify a particular version of mainstream “molecular clock” hypothesis, which are clearly broke in my understanding. The kind of arguments “rebated” are more or less what I have been putting forward since many years ago. Ironically their “molecular clock” estimates make N and R much older than M, what I absolutely oppose (just count mutations downstream of the L3 node).
  2. No real attention is given instead to the geographical structure/distribution of major mtDNA haplogroups, only mentioned in relation to “molecular clock” speculations.
  3. The criticism of the African affinity of the Jwalapuram (Jurreru Valley) cores (Petraglia 2007) focuses on dismissal of any possibility of comparison, rather than on alternative comparisons. 
  4. Another “criticism” is that there is no apparent connection between Jwalapuram and the Nubian Complex (why there should be any?, it is not the only East African techno-culture, nor the only group that shows indications of traveling to Arabia in the Abbassia Pluvial).
  5. Also it is “criticized” that the most comparable African culture, Howiesons Poort) is not recorded before c. 71 Ka BP (what IMO may indicate late cultural dispersals to Southern Africa from East Africa, for example, but, hey!, Mellars is fencing off balls like crazy at his conservative goal). 
  6. They find clear similitudes between Indian and African microlithic industries (apparently related to the development of “mode 4” in both areas, as well as in West Eurasia). Indian industries are dated to c. 38-40 Ka BP, while African ones are dated to c. 49 Ka BP (Kenya) or later. However West Eurasian ones have dates as old as 55 Ka BP (not for Mellars, who remains stuck in older date references which he describes as ∼40–45 ka [calibrated (cal.) before present (B.P.)]), what really suggest that we are talking here not of the “out of Africa” but of the West Eurasian colonization process (necessarily from further into Asia, genetic phylo-geographic structure demands) with offshoots to the nearby regions. 
  7. Another element of late Africa-India “similitude” they find is “the remarkable, double bounded criss-cross design incised on ostrich eggshell”, dated in India (Patne) to at least ∼30 ka (cal. B.P.), much earlier in South Africa. For Mellars this is beyond the range of either pure coincidence or entirely independent and remarkably convergent cultural evolutionary processes. Hmmm, really? Or are we before a clear case of wishful thinking as happens with the Solutrean-Clovis relationship hypothesis? Isn’t it 30 Ka BP anyhow well beyond any reasonable expectations for the OoA time frame, including Mellar’s own conjectures?
  8. Mellars accepts the paradox that the geographical limits of these highly distinctive microblade and geometric microlithic technologies are confined to the Indian subcontinent, with no currently documented traces of these technologies in regions farther to the east. And then makes up excuses for it, such as biological and cultural bottlenecks caused by “founder effects”, mysteriously leading to a loss or simplification of cultural and technological know-how, as well as fininding new and contrasting environments (in the same latitudes?!)
  9. Even in the case of Arabian colonization, Mellars shows to be in a very defensive attitude, admitting only to the reality of the Palestinian sites with clearly modern skulls, as well as to the area of Nubian Complex colonization (on whose peculiarities he insists a lot, as if it would be the only expression of the wider MSA techno-complex), disdaining all the other MSA colonization areas and, often ill-defined, variants.
In brief, for what I could see in the supplemental material, along with some potentially interesting references to the relative cultural community spanning from East Africa to South Asia at the time of emergence of “mode 4” industries, it seems that Mellars and allies are essentially putting the cart (their models) before the horses (the facts), what is bad science. 
In 2008, Zilhao and d’Errico angrily accused Mellars of being an obsolete armchair prehistorian (different words maybe, same idea). Back in the day I was tempted to support Mellars but nowadays I must agree that he is clearly stuck in a one-sided interpretation of prehistory whose time is long gone. Whatever the case I welcome the debate and can only hope that will help to produce even more evidence to further clarify the actual facts of the Prehistory of Humankind.

African MSA

As I mentioned recently, I am collaborating in a joint series of articles in Spanish language which try to explore the expansion of Homo sapiens from the double viewpoint of archaeology and population genetics. The series, hosted by Noticias de Prehistoria – Prehistoria al Día, began this past Thursday with David Sánchez’ article on the African MSA, earliest fossils of H. sapiens and other early African cultures like the Lupemban and Aterian. In the next week I plan to explore the genetic aspects, in line with what has been published in this blog and its predecessor Leherensuge.
But so far let’s try to synthesize the most important aspects of David’s entry at his blog. First and foremost is this map, which I believe is of great interest because of its synthetic informative value:

Legend translation:
· Fossil remains of Homo sapiens (195-90 Ka BP)
· Aterian sites (170*-40 Ka BP)
· Nubian complex [MSA] sites (115-37 Ka BP)
· Lupemban sites (230-130 Ka BP)
· Undetermined MSA
· South African [MSA] sites (165-59 Ka BP)
· Some early MSA sites
[* personally I am a bit skeptic about the oldest Aterian dates but well…]

It’s possible that it’s not totally complete (feel free to add to our unavoidably limited knowledge) but it does gather in a quick view most of the African Middle Paleolithic (MSA, Aterian and Lupemban). The site of Katanda which has a special interest because of the harpoons, the earliest known ever, was absent in the version first uploaded but this has been corrected now.
This synthetic map, together with the extensive bibliography (in several languages) that David links at the bottom of his article are, I believe, an interesting reference for all those interested in the origins of Homo sapiens and its first prehistory in the African continent.

Paleolithic mattresses

Most readers are probably at least somewhat familiar with the many, often impressive and revealing, South African sites but, besides the already mentioned Katanda harpoons, what really impressed me a lot was the finding in Sibudu, Northern Mozambique, near Lake Malawi, of fragments of ancient fossilized mattresses made up of vegetation that has bug-repealing properties (→ news article at El Mundo[es]). Apparently the owners, some 73,000 years ago, burnt them now and then in order to destroy parasites. Since c. 58,000 BP the number of mattresses, fires and ashes grew, surely indicating greater population densities, at least locally. 
The ancient inhabitants of that area of Mozambique are also known to have milled and processed, some 100,000 years ago, a diverse array of plants, including sorghum, “African potato” (medicinal), wine palm, false banana, pigeon peas, etc.

The Katanda harpoons

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


Advanced lithic tech 70,000 years ago in South Africa

A new paper argues for the importance of ill-researched early African stone technologies in human techno-cultural evolution, based mostly on the heat-treated microlithic technology used at Pinnacle Point and its persistence through time. 
Kyle S. Brown et al., An early and enduring advanced technology originating 71,000 years ago in South Africa. Nature 2012. Pay per view ··> LINK [doi:10.1038/nature11660]

There is consensus that the modern human lineage appeared in Africa before 100,000 years ago1, 2. But there is debate as to when cultural and cognitive characteristics typical of modern humans first appeared, and the role that these had in the expansion of modern humans out of Africa3. Scientists rely on symbolically specific proxies, such as artistic expression, to document the origins of complex cognition. Advanced technologies with elaborate chains of production are also proxies, as these often demand high-fidelity transmission and thus language. Some argue that advanced technologies in Africa appear and disappear and thus do not indicate complex cognition exclusive to early modern humans in Africa3, 4. The origins of composite tools and advanced projectile weapons figure prominently in modern human evolution research, and the latter have been argued to have been in the exclusive possession of modern humans5, 6. Here we describe a previously unrecognized advanced stone tool technology from Pinnacle Point Site 5–6 on the south coast of South Africa, originating approximately 71,000 years ago. This technology is dominated by the production of small bladelets (microliths) primarily from heat-treated stone. There is agreement that microlithic technology was used to create composite tool components as part of advanced projectile weapons7, 8. Microliths were common worldwide by the mid-Holocene epoch, but have a patchy pattern of first appearance that is rarely earlier than 40,000 years ago9, 10, and were thought to appear briefly between 65,000 and 60,000 years ago in South Africa and then disappear. Our research extends this record to ~71,000years, shows that microlithic technology originated early in South Africa, evolved over a vast time span (~11,000years), and was typically coupled to complex heat treatment that persisted for nearly 100,000years. Advanced technologies in Africa were early and enduring; a small sample of excavated sites in Africa is the best explanation for any perceived ‘flickering’ pattern.
Supplementary materials (PDF) are freely available.
Supplementary Figure 2. Artifacts including crescent shaped backed blades (A-L) and notched blades (M-U) from the DBCS at PP5-6 show affinities with the Howiesons Poort industry. Backed blades are oriented with backed edge up and unmodified edge down. Notched blades are oriented parallel with axis of flake removal.

Posted by on November 7, 2012 in Africa, Middle Paleolithic, MSA, South Africa, stone tech