The Antiquity of Man

   Home   |   About   |   What is Evolution   |   World Archaeology & Palaeoanthropology   |   North African Archaeology   |   Pseudoscience   |   Recommended Readings   |   Reviews   |   Links   |   Search   |   Contact

Mike Brass. 1998 essay. Why is the "Later Stone Age" a meaningful archaeological entity?

With a tool-making tradition stretching back two million years in southern Africa, it is only during the last 40 000 of these years that Later Stone Age artifact characteristics make their appearance.

Differences between the Later Stone Age assemblages and the Middle Stone Age are considerable in terms of worked or applied organic materials (Volman 1984: 214). Implements that had been shaped from faunal remains in MSA sites excavated so far consist of “several ‘daggers’ of pig tusk” from the site of Border Cave and a Klasies River Mouth bone point (Volman 1984: 214), which bare a sharp contrast to their fairly common occurrence in L.S.A. stratigraphic layers (Deacon 1984: 221). However, the essential differences between these two toolmaking traditions lies in their differing techniques of stone tool manufacturing and the resultant features. Characteristics of the LSA lie in the use by its inhabitants of:

1. Decorating themselves with ostrich egg shell beads and amulets, as well as shells from river banks and the sea (Deacon 1984: 221);
2. Specialised equipment for fishing and hunting, like sinkers, hooks, and bows and arrows (Deacon 1984: 221-222);
3. Formal scrapers, which would have been used primarily for skin-working (Deacon 1984: 222);
4. Formal graves for the burial of the dead, sometimes accompanied by goods and/or being covered with ochre-painted stones and
5. The range of tools used for making the above artifacts, e.g. adzes (woodwork) and borers (beads) (Deacon 1984: 222).

Although Late Pleistocene LSA people and their MSA predecessors hunted pretty much the same range of animals, differences occur in the proportions of certain animal remains: the eland is less abundant during the LSA, while the remnants of pigs increase (Wadley 1993: 258). A hypothesis has been put forward by Klein, based on his analysis of faunas from southern Cape sites, that, because the Early Later Stone Age inhabitants captured more suids and less eland than their MSA predecessors, the MSA people specifically avoided prey that was very fierce when under attack and targeted species that were at least comparably placid, at least in that region (Klein 1977: 21).


Thus the term “LSA” is primarily a technological entity (Deacon 1984: 226), which differs from the MSA on account of the former’s smaller flake sizes and the different range of formal artefacts found in the two units. The LSA unit has been further subdivided into “Late Pleistocene microlithic (40 000 - 12 000 BP)”, “Terminal Pleistocene/early Holocene non-microlithic (12 000 - 8 000 BP)”, and “Holocene microlithic (8 000 - a few hundred years BP)” assemblages, as well as the “Late Holocene assemblages associated with pottery (within the last 2 500 years, with most sites more recent than 2 000 BP)” (Deacon 1984: 228), characterised by core range and size and shape differences (Deacon 1984: 226).

These assemblages range between 40 000 and 12 000 BP in date. The oldest known being from the layers at Border Cave radio-carbon dated between 38 000 and 36 000 BP (Klein 1977: 14). Ostrich eggshell beads, bored stones and bone arrowheads are evident for the first time in these levels from Border Cave (Thackery 1992: 426). The lack of MSA backed pieces, radically prepared cores and modified butts are distinctive features in these LSA layers. Small, quartz scaled pieces (evidence of bipolar flaking, and which are also present MSA layers, but in small numbers) are present on a larger scale, but there are few bladlets and no conical bladlet cores (Wadley 1993: 260).

The transition between the Middle and Later Stone Age toolmaking traditions is suggested to have taken place at Boomplaas Cave between 40 000 and 30 000 BP” (Deacon 1979: 257), but it is in the layers dated between 32 000 and 22 000 BP (the YOL Member) that the major technological change occurred (Deacon et al 1983:& 341). This ‘marker’, in which essentially modern forms of behaviour emerge, is evident in the exhibiting before 22 000 BP of a shift from a hunting lifestyle of open-plain game to a “more settled-in patch foraging” and can be broadly correlated with the onset of the Late Pleistocene’s harsh environment (Deacon et al 1983:341).

Dates covering roughly the same time span were yielded by Kaplan in a 1985 excavation he undertook an excavation at the Umhlatuzana rock shelter in Natal, which yielded LSA and MSA deposits from 45 000 - 9 000 B.P. He interpreted the LSA/MSA transition occurring at this site as being between 35 000 and 25 000 BP (Kaplan 1989: 7).

It is in these transitional layers at Umhlatuzana that the raw material composition shifts notably with the frequency of hornfels showing an increase from 29% to 82% of the waste and a decrease in quartz from 70% to 16%” (Kaplan 1989: 10). A relatively high occurrence of formally retouched tools are evident in the transitional layers. Thus deposit dating, combined with the formal tool assemblages and the composition of raw materials, lends its weight to the contention of a 35 000 - 25 000 BP date for the transition of the MSA to the LSA., which - based on evidence from this site - was a gradual ongoing uninterrupted event sequence.

Kaplan cited as additional evidence for a gradual transition the fact that prior to the transition there was evidence of a bladlet technology in use (Kaplan 1989: 14). The MSA assemblages includes ‘blade points and flakes with faceted platforms’, which, he contends, evolved into the LSA assemblage ‘where faceted platforms are absent’ (Kaplan 1989: 15).

The site of Apollo 11, Namibia, has a similar late MSA occupation dated at 27 000 (Volman 1984: 215).

Earlier MSA layer dates have been obtained from sites in the eastern Orange Free State, Swaziland, northeastern Cape and Lesotho - layers dating as recent as 20 000 years (Thackery 1992: 427), thus standing in direct contrast to that of both the Border Cave and Boomplaas sequences.

Additional evidence for a late surviving MSA tradition has been presented by Price-Williams at the site of Sibebe Shelter (north-west Swaziland), whose sequence ranges right from the MSA through to the Iron Age. The MSA artefacts were dominated unifacial and bifacial points. (Price-Williams 1981: 22).

Sibebe Shelter was first excavated by Beaumont in the mid-1960s and a radio-carbon date of 22 850 +/- 160 BP from a charcoal sample from the upper levels of the MSA layer was later published by Vogel in 1970 (Price-Williams 1981: 22), a date with which Price-Williams does not have a contention with “as far as the Middle Stone Age levels are concerned provisional comparisons may be made with material from the site described by Vogel to which he gave a date of 22 850 +/- 160 BP. This would accord with other evidence of similar date from other sites in Swaziland.” (Price-Williams 1981: 26)

Border Cave aside, ostrich egg shell beads have also been found in undated MSA units at the Cave of Hearths and at Bushman Rock Shelter. Although they continue to be found in layers at different sites spanning the remainder of the Pleistocene, like Apollo 11 and Nelson Bay Cave, it is starting at roughly 10 000 BP that they can be seen with regularity at diffuse sites like Elands Bay, Boomplaas, Wonderwerk and Umhlatuzana (Wadley 1993: 276-277).

At about roughly 21 000 BP bladlet-rich microlithic industries start making an appearance in the archaeological record at Boomplaas and roughly 20 000 at Sehonghong (Wadley 1996: 68), called in the southern Cape the Robberg Industry after the type site Nelson Bay Cave on the Robberg Peninsula. Elands Bay, Equus Cave, Melkhoutboom, Boomplaas, Kangkara and Byneskranskop all have deposits attributed to the Robberg Industry (Wadley 1993: 265). Although not strictly included in the “Robberg” industrial term, Rose Cottage Cave has yielded a late version of the Robberg Industry, which has a date of 13 300 - 12 000 BP (Wadley 1996: 64). Also, the Umhlatuzana rock shelter’s Layer 4 (with a date of 9180 BP) “has a well developed bladlet industry, characteristic of the Robberg and this suggests that the Robberg industry persisted longer in Natal than it did in the southern Cape and Lesotho” (Kaplan 1989: 8).

Not many of the Robberg and Robberg-like industries’ tools underwent retouch, but where they did they appeared as segments and backed bladlets. High proportions of these industries were taken up by bladlets and small flake-bladlets (Wadley 1993: 269), as evidenced at Rose Cottage Cave (Wadley 1996: 64). Segments are absent from the Sehonghong assemblage and are a rarity at Rose Cottage, backed bladlets predominating at both sites (Wadley 1996: 73). This can be compared to “Boomplaas where five of the seven backed tools are segments and at Nelson Bay where two of the four backed tools are segments” (Wadley 1996: 73). This is in stark contrast to the assemblages from the Holocene with scant bladlets, many more of which underwent retouch (Wadley 1993: 268).

The increase in the numbers of bipolar cores found cannot point to them being an LSA invention for they occur to a certain extent also in some sites’ MSA layers, but increasing impressively in post 39 000 BP layers at Border Cave (Wadley 1993: 268).


The earliest examples are found at sites like Apollo 11, Bushman Rock Shelter and Heuningeskrans, and yield a date of 12 000 - 11 000 BP. During the next thousand years ( 11 000 - 10 000 BP) the assemblage numbers jump to 23 and are present virtually over the whole area south of the Limpopo (Wadley 1993: 270).

Matjes River and Nswatugi (Zimbabwe) have deliberate burials from this time period (Deacon 1984: 240-241), as well as Elands Bay (Wadley 1993: 288). Associated with the burials at Matjes River are ochre and grave goods which indicate that the inhabitants processed a complex religious belief. Wonderwerk Cave yields additional evidence in favour of religious beliefs in the form of “engraved art moblier with abstract engraved designs” thought to represent shamans’ trance hallucinations at 10 200 BP (Wadley 1993: 276, 288). Similar “abstract engraved designs” have also been found on ostrich eggshell fragments, which were likely to have been used as water containers. Art moblier has also been found at Apollo 11, which can be dated to either 19 000 or 27 500 BP, but is the only surviving example from that time period and nothing has been found in the intervening thousands of years (Wadley 1993: 275-276).

The large scrapers at sites like Matjes River and naturally backed knives have associated with them items like grindstones, bored stones and ground stone palettes (Wadley 1993: 271). Often scrapers are the only formal tools in these (also termed “Albany” and the “Oakhurst Industrial Complex”) assemblages, and are consistently greater in size from those of the preceding late Pleistocene and the forthcoming Holocene periods.

In tandem with this technological shift are greater uses of large rock type pieces. The earlier microlithic assemblages were made from fine-grained siliceous rocks, the emphasis now switching to dolerite (in the northern parts of the country), shale (in the interior of the country), quartzite (Nelson Bay Cave, Boomplaas) and sandstone (Rose Cottage Cave) (Wadley 1993: 271; Wadley 1996: 66).

A coastal pattern of existence comes plainly to the fore with the end of the Last Glacial Maximum and the resultant sea level rises. By 12 000 BP, the coastline had come within a few kilometres of present-day coastal sites (Deacon 1984: 244) with the resultant appearance of marine birds (like cormorants and gannets) and animals (fish, dolphins), and marine shell in the archaeological record from this period (Deacon 1984: 244-245).

This marine exploitation was far more effective than it was during the preceding Middle Stone Age. The LSA techniques later evident would have been refined during the previous glacial cycle at occupation sites that are currently submerged (Deacon 1984: 244-245).

Population size also increases during this period, evident with the use not only of large shelters but also of previously-neglected small shelters. There occur also many presently undated open sites which contained Albany assemblage material. The size site variability could be due to the fact that some shelters were used as aggregation sites and others as dispersal sites. If group size was, as is likely, smaller by the time the Pleistocene terminated, this would well explain the small game hunting seen by that time at some sites (Wadley 1993: 288). Small game hunting could well have served to polarise gender roles, for small game hunting which, contrary to the previous spear hunting of large game, only requires one man or a small group and therefore woman would most likely have been increasingly marginalised from this activity. Evidence for this hypothesis comes from Elands Bay where increased gathered food and the presence of grindstones and broken or unfinished decorative items have been interpreted as that of increasing female presence at the home base” (Parkington 1990 cited in Wadley 1993: 288-289).

Most of these behavioural hypothetical models are based on imposing selected parts of the lifestyles of modern hunter-gatherers on the past. While this has its limitations - like the assumption that the range of everyday activities has not undergone major changes - there is archaeological basis in doing this analogy for many artifacts in use today are also present in the archaeological record. Artifacts like ostrich egg shell which are used as storage containers, mainly for water. Fragments are present in virtually all LSA layers and some scattered pieces have been discovered in MSA units as well, although in limited numbers (Deacon 1984: 295).


A return to microlithic techniques roughly 8 000 BP also saw the formal stone tool ranges being increased beyond anything previously seen in the LSA. Compared with terminal Pleistocene/early Holocene samples, the mean length of untrimmed flakes was diminished and although unretouched bladlets do occur in greater numbers than in the terminal Pleistocene/early Holocene, it is not as numerous as those that date at some sites like Nelson Bay Cave and Boomplaas between 18 000 and 12 000 BP (Deacon 1984: 248).

Painted stone from as early as 6 400 BP (southern Cape) and the occurrence at Wonderwerk (northern Cape) all through the Holocene sequence of engraved stones associated many rock art painting engravings with mid- and late Holocene microlithic assemblages (Deacon 1984: 248-249).


Assemblages with pottery and, most times, remains of domesticated cattle have been lumped together as this is evidence of a new wave of subsistence behaviour and technology entering southern Africa. This new wave was not accompanied by changes in the manufacturing of stone tools, although some formal tools’ frequencies underwent a gradual alteration as did scrapers’ sizes and shapes. The most common change was a reduction of the frequency of segments and backed microliths. But the overall impression is one of pottery and cattle being incorporated onto the pre-existing Stone Age way of life (Deacon 1984: 269).


Controversy has arisen in the last three decades over the timing of the MSA/LSA transition. The views of Klein (1977) and Beaumont (Deacon...) that the MSA came to a end before 40 000 BP (for the former) and 49 000 (for the latter) have been contrasted with sites in Swaziland with late MSA dates of near 30 000 years. Thus while certain MSA sites in certain areas were abandoned early on, others continued in use by people with either a similar or the same material culture (Price-Williams and Watson 1982: 378).

Distinctions have been made between stone assemblages within the LSA based on their technical characteristics: Late Pleistocene microlithic (40 000 - 12 000 BP), Terminal Pleistocene/early Holocene non-microlithic (12 000 - 8 000 BP), Holocene microlithic (8 000 - historic times) and Late Holocene with pottery (last 2 500 years) (Deacon 1984: 228-229). These technical adjustments are believed to have taken place independently of environmental factors (Deacon 1990).

It is unknown how much comparison can reasonably be down between modern hunter-gatherers and their prehistoric ancestors. Does the appearance of art and decorated items hint at similar ideologies? Or do the beads and bone points point to a system similar to hxaro? The many archaeological artifacts found bear similarities to the items used by present day hunter-gatherers to suggest that this was the case.

The arrival of domesticated cattle brought about the onset of socio-economic change in most regions of southern Africa and this vein continued into historic times.


Deacon, H.J. 1979. Excavations at Boomplaas Cave - a sequence through the Upper Pleistocene and Holocene in South Africa. World Archaeology 10: 241-257.
Deacon, H.J. & Deacon, J., et al. 1983. Correlation of palaeoenvironmental data from the Late Pleistocene and Holocene deposits at Boomplaas cave, southern Cape. SASQUA International Symposium, Swaziland, 29 August - 2 September 1983.
Deacon, J. 1984. Later Stone Age people and their descendants in southern Africa. In: Klein, R.G. (ed.) Southern African prehistory and palaeoenvironments: 221-328. Rotterdam: Balkema.
Deacon, J. 1990. Changes in the archaeologicalrecord in South Africa at 18 000 BP. In: Gamble, C. & Soffer, O. The World at 18 000 BP (Vol. 2) - Low Latitudes: 170-188. Unwin Hyman: London.
Kaplan, J.M. 1989. 45 000 Years of hunter-gatherer history in Natal as seen from Umhlatuzana Rock Shelter. South African Archaeological Goodwin Series 6: 7-16.
Klein, R.G. 1977. The mammalian fauna from the Middle and Later Stone Age (Late Pleistocene) levels of Border Cave, Natal Province, South Africa. South African Archaeological Bulletin 32: 14-27.
Price-Williams, D. 1981. A preliminary report on recent excavations of Middle and Late Stone Age levels at Sibebe Shelter, north-west Swaziland. South African Archaeological Bulletin 36: 22-28.
Price-Williams, D. & Watson, A. 1982. New observations on the prehistory and palaeoclimate of the Late Pleistocene in southern Africa. World Archaeology 13: 372-379.
Thackeray, A.I. 1992. The Middle Stone Age South of the Limpopo River. Journal of World Prehistory 6: 385-440.
Volman, T.P. 1984. Early Prehistory of Southern Africa. In: Klein, R.G. (ed.) Southern African prehistory and palaeoenvironments: 214-220.
Wadley, L. 1993. The Pleistocene Later Stone Age south of the Limpopo River. Journal of World Prehistory 7: 243-296.
Wadley, L. 1996. The Robberg Industry of Rose Cottage Cave, eastern Free State: the technology, spatial patterns and environment. South African Archaeological Bulletin 51: 64-74.

back to top of page