Archaeology: ‘Staggering’ West Africa discoveries to rewrite textbooks on human evolution

Neanderthals: Expert discusses why species went extinct

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The history of mankind traces the roots of our species, Homo sapiens, to the African continent. Scientists believe our earliest ancestors emerged out of the Great Rift Valley in East Africa, which is known today as the “cradle of mankind”. Archaeological and paleontological evidence shows Homo sapiens arose in Africa some 300,000 years ago and left their mark during the so-called Middle Stone Age.

This prehistoric period, which ended between 25,000 and 50,000 years ago, gave rise to a number of cultural and technological revolutions.

According to Eleanor Scerri of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, the Middle Stone Age saw humans create rudimentary art, tools and the bow and arrow.

Until now, scientists agreed this period ended about 40,000 years ago in Africa.

Dr Scerri said: “This was a milestone in the history of our species: the end of the first and longest-lasting culture associated with humanity, and the foundation for all the subsequent innovations and material culture that defines us today.”

But there is no consensus on how the Middle Stone Age ended, leaving gaps in our understanding of how its transition into the Later Stone Age influenced the course of human evolution.

Archaeological discoveries in West Africa could change this, however, as there is a growing body of evidence the Middle Stone Age ended there “far more recently than the textbooks suggested”.

In an article for The Conversation, Dr Scerri discussed the 2014 discovery of a site in Senegal that clashed with our previous assumption.

The expert said: “Dates from Ndiayène Pendao indicated that the site was around 12,000 years old.

“Yet the material culture was classically Middle Stone Age, without any Later Stone Age tools or production methods.”

Dr Scerri and her colleagues returned to Senegal in 2016 and 2018 to track down more archaeological sites.

In particular, the researchers were looking along river systems and tributaries in Senegal and the Gambia.

Freshwater was a critical resource for prehistoric people – as it is still today – and river terraces are good at preserving archaeological sites.

The researchers analysed the site of Laminia in the Gambia, which they found to be about 24,000-years-old, meaning the Middle Stone Age was present in the region.

Another site, dubbed Saxomununya, was even more surprising, according to Dr Scerri, as it was only 11,000-years-old – the Holocene epoch.

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The expert said: “These results extend the last known occurrence of the Middle Stone Age by a staggering 20,000 years.

“At the same time, work by colleagues in Senegal also suggested an equally late first occurrence of the Later Stone Age at around 11,000 years – younger than in most other African regions.”

So why did the Middle Stone Age last so long in this part of the African continent?

It is possible parts of West Africa were less affected by cycles of climate change.

This may have led to a more stable environment over long periods of time.

Dr Scerri said: “As a result of such stability, a finely tuned toolkit that had worked well for millennia might not have needed to change, regardless of the social complexity of the people who made the tools.”

This part of Africa was also fairly remote as it was cut off to the north by the Sahara Desert and to the east, Central Africa’s sprawling rainforests were frequently disconnected from West Africa’s rainforests.

But about 15,000 years ago, there was a spike in rainforest growth.

Dr Scerri said: “This may have linked different areas and provided corridors for dispersal of human populations.

“This may have spelt the end for humanity’s first and earliest cultural repertoire and initiated a new period of genetic and cultural mixing.”

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