Recent archaeological discoveries have revealed that the Stone Age period may have lasted 20 thousand years in some parts of Africa longer than previously thought.
New discoveries at sites in Senegal on the west coast of Africa, by researchers from the Max Planck Institute, are fueling a rethink of the passage of human evolution.
Previous discoveries indicated that humans in Africa stopped using certain tools and methods – including simple points and scrapers – in favor of more sophisticated and artisanal equipment, including spears and blades, about 30,000 years ago.
This distinction in equipment, and the transition to a more technical approach and a regional diversity of tools, marks the transition from the Middle Stone Age to the later Stone Age.
Archaeologists have discovered that ancient West Africans were still using simple tools about 11,000 years ago – up to 20,000 years after they lost their luck elsewhere.
This disproves the well-established theory that humankind has evolved in one unified way towards our modern lifestyle – and instead has evolved at different speeds around the world.
New discoveries at sites in Senegal on the west coast of Africa, by researchers from the Max Planck Institute, fuel a rethink of the passage of human evolution.
The Stone Age is divided into three periods – the Lower Stone Age before Homo sapiens, the Middle Stone Age where early Homo sapiens used simple tools such as points and skimmers – and the Late Stone Age where craftsmanship began to take hold.
Middle Stone Age discoveries occur most commonly in the African record between about 300,000 and 30,000 years ago, after which they largely disappear – although new research indicates that this continued in some isolated regions at a later date.
The exact transition varies from region to region, but the final stage of the Late Stone Age – the Neolithic – the game method to the Bronze Age around 3500 BC.
Archaeologists say their research supports the idea that – for most of the prehistoric ages of humankind – groups of humans were relatively isolated from one another.
The discovery comes as archaeologists are taking some first steps in uncovering the prehistoric past of West Africa, which they say has not been sufficiently studied compared to the eastern and southern regions of the continent.
The lead author of the new study, Dr. Eleanor Scari, said that West Africa is a true frontier in studies of human evolution – as almost nothing is known about prehistoric times.
“Almost everything we know about human origins is extrapolated from discoveries in small parts of eastern and southern Africa,” said Sukari.
Her colleague, Dr Khadi Niang, from Cheikh Anta Diop University in Senegal, added: “ These discoveries demonstrate the importance of investigating the entire African continent, if we really want to deal with the deep human past.
“Before our work, the story from the rest of Africa indicated that 11,000 years ago, the last traces of the Middle Stone Age were long gone.”
The team doesn’t know exactly why Stone Age West Africans took longer to adopt new tools, but they speculate that it could be due to geographical isolation.
Other theories suggest it may also be due to less drastic changes in the climate which means that the humans who live there do not need to find new ways to adapt.
Archaeologists say their research supports the idea that – for most of the prehistoric ages of humankind – groups of humans were relatively isolated from one another. These drawings show some of the tools used 11,000 years ago in West Africa that actually ended up being used elsewhere
“All we can be sure of is that this persistence is not simply related to a lack of ability to invest in developing new technologies,” said Dr. Niang.
These people were intelligent, they knew how to choose a good stone for their tool in making and exploiting the landscapes in which they lived.
The team said their findings, along with genetic discoveries that show an enormous amount of diversity among humans living on the continent, fit into a more recent view of human evolution that Stone Age groups lived and evolved separately.
Dr Niang said, “ We’re not sure why, but apart from the physical distance, it might be the case that some cultural boundaries also exist. Perhaps the population using these different physical cultures also lived in slightly different environmental outlets.
Field walking team along the Gambia River, Senegal. The team doesn’t know exactly why Stone Age West Africans took longer to adopt new tools, but they speculate that it could be due to geographical isolation.
About 15,000 years ago, significant increases in humidity and forest growth in Central and West Africa connected different regions and provided pathways for the dispersal of groups – signaling the end of the Middle Stone Age tools.
“These results do not fit into a simple, single-line model of cultural change towards ‘modernity’,” added Dr. Sukari.
Groups of hunter-gatherers immersed in radically different technological traditions have occupied neighboring regions of Africa for thousands of years, sometimes even sharing the same areas.
On the other hand, long isolated areas may be important repositories of cultural and genetic diversity. This may be a determining factor in the success of our species.
The results have been published in the journal Scientific Reports.
What do we know about the history of the Stone Age?
The Stone Age is a prehistoric period for man marked by the original development of stone tools covering more than 95 percent of human prehistory.
It begins with the first known use of stone tools by hominins, the ancestors of ancient humans, during the Palaeolithic period – which began about 3.3 million years ago.
From about 400,000 to 200,000 years ago, the pace of innovation in stone technology began to accelerate very slightly, a period known as the Middle Stone Age.
By the beginning of this time, the hand broom was made with exquisite craftsmanship. This eventually led to the emergence of smaller and more diverse toolkits, with an emphasis on exfoliation tools rather than larger, basic tools.
The Stone Age is a prehistoric period for man marked by the original development of stone tools covering more than 95 percent of human prehistory. This photo shows jadeite axes from the Neolithic period from the Toulouse Museum
These toolkits were created for a period of at least 285,000 years in some parts of Africa, and from 250,000 to 200,000 years ago in Europe and parts of Western Asia. These toolkits last for at least 50,000 to 28,000 years.
During the later Stone Age, the pace of innovations increased and the level of craftsmanship increased.
Groups of Homo sapiens experimented with various raw materials, including bone, ivory, and horn, as well as stone.
This period, between 50,000 and 39,000 years ago, is also linked to the emergence of modern human behavior in Africa.
Different groups sought their own distinct cultural identity and adopted their own methods of making things.
Later Stone Age peoples and their technologies spread out of Africa over the next millennia.