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This article is about the term as applied to African prehistory. See Mesolithic for the "middle" period of the Stone Age in general. See Middle Paleolithic for the "middle" part of the "Old Stone Age".

The Middle Stone Age (or MSA) was a period of African Prehistory between Early Stone Age and Late Stone Age. It began around 300,000 years ago and ended around 50,000 years ago.[1] It is considered as an equivalent of European Middle Paleolithic[2]. It is associated with anatomically modern or almost modern Homo sapiens. Early physical evidence comes from Omo [3] and Herto [4], both in Ethiopia and dated respectively at c. 195 ka and at c. 160 ka.

Middle Stone Age artifacts were manufactured at Blombos Cave in South Africa 70ka. Pierced and ochred Nassarius shell beads were also recovered from Blombos, with even earlier examples (Middle Stone Age, Aterian) from the Taforalt Caves, Arrows and hide working tools have been found at Sibudu Cave[5] as evidence of making weapons with compound heat treated gluing technology.[6].



Early development

During the Acheulian to MSA transition the Middle Awash valley of Ethiopia and the Olorgesailie basins of Kenya constituted a major center for behavioural innovation [7]. It is likely that the large terrestrial mammal biomass of these regions supported substantial human populations with subsistence and manufacturing patterns similar to those of ethnographically known forager. Blades and backed pieces from the Twin Rivers and Kalambo Falls sites in Zambia dated at c. 300 ka indicate a suite of new behaviours [8] and Barham [9] believes that syntactic language was one behavioural aspect that allowed these MSA people to settle in the tropical forests of the Congo. A high level of technical competence is also indicated for the c. 280 ka blades recovered from the Kapthurin Formation, Kenya [10]. Wurz et al. (2003) contend that distinct technological changes in lithic style between the MSA I period (c. 110 – 115 ka) and the MSA II (c. 94 -85 ka) at Klasies in the Western Cape is associated with cognitively modern behaviour.

Human change and replacement

By c. 80 – 50 ka MSA humans spread out of Africa to Asia, Australia and Europe [11], perhaps only in small numbers initially [12], but by c. 30 ka they had replaced Neanderthals and Homo erectus. Based on the measurement of a large number of human skulls a recent study supports a central/southern African origin for Homo sapiens as this region shows the highest intra-population diversity in phenotypic measurements. Genetic data supports this conclusion [13].

Behaviour and cognitive innovation

The development of modern behaviour in the MSA is likely to have been a vast and complex series of events that developed in a mosaic way.[14]. Some have argued for discontinuity such as Richard G. Klein,[15] while other such as McBrearty and Brooks have argued that cognitive advances can be detected in the MSA and that the origin of our species is linked with the appearance of Middle Stone Age technology at 250-300 ka.[16]

Complex cognition

Based on his analysis of the MSA bovid assemblage at Klasies, Milo (1998) reports MSA people were formidable hunters and that their social behaviour patterns approached those of modern humans. Deacon [17] maintains that the management of plant food resources through deliberate burning of the veldt to encourage the growth of plants with corms or tubers in the southern Cape during the Howiesons Poort (c. 70 - 55 ka) is indicative of modern behaviour. A family basis to foraging groups, colour symbolism and the reciprocal exchange of artefacts and the formal organization of living space are, he suggests, further evidence for modernity in the MSA.

Lyn Wadley has argue that the complexity of the skill needed to process the heat treated compound glue (gum and red ochre) used to haft spears that would seem to argued for continuity between modern human cognition and that of humans 70,000 BP at Sibudu Cave.[6][18]

Evidence for language

Ochre is reported from some early MSA sites, for example at Kapthurin and Twin Rivers, and is common after c. 100 ka [19]. Barham [20] argues that even if some of this ochre was used in a symbolic, colour related role then this abstraction could not have worked without language. Ochre, he suggests, could be one proxy for trying to find the emergence of language.

Formal bone tools are frequently associated with modern behaviour by archaeologists [21]. Sophisticated bone harpoons manufactured at Katanda, West Africa at c. 90 ka [22] and those from Blombos Cave dated at c. 77 ka [23] may then also serve as examples of material culture associated with modern language.

Many authors have speculated that at the core of this symbolic explosion, and in tandem, was the development of syntactic language that evolved through a highly specialized social learning system [24] providing the means for semantically unbounded discourse [25]. Syntax would have played a key role in this process and its full adoption could have been a crucial element of the symbolic behavioural package in the MSA [26].

Brain change

Although the advent of anatomical physical modernity cannot confidently be linked with palaeoneurological change [27] it does seem probable that hominid brains evolved through the same selection processes as other body parts [28]. Genes that promoted a capacity for symbolism may have been selected suggesting the foundations for symbolic culture may well be grounded in biology but behaviour that was mediated by symbolism may have only come later, even though this physical capacity was already in place much earlier. Skoyles and Sagan for example argues that human brain expansion by increasing the prefrontal cortex would have created a brain capable of symbolising its previously nonsymblic cognition, and that this process slow to begin with increasingly accelerated during the last 100,000 years.[29] Symbolically mediated behaviour may have feedback upon this process by creating greater ability to manufacture symbolic artifacts and social networks that were organized upon them.

Pattern of change

Artifact technology during the Middle Stone Age shows a pattern of innovation followed by disappearance. This occurs to such technology such as the manufacture of shell beads[30] arrows and hide working tools including needles[5] and gluing technology.[6]. This has been suggested to question the ‘‘classic’’ out of Africa scenario in which increasing complexity accumulated during the Middle Stone Age. Instead, it has been argued that such technological innovations "appear, disappear and re-appear in a way that best fits a scenario in which historical contingencies and environmental rather than cognitive changes are seen as main drivers.[5] p. 1577.


See also


  1. ^ McBrearty and Brooks 2000
  2. ^ Biological origins of modern humans
  3. ^ McDougall et al. 2005
  4. ^ White et al. 2003
  5. ^ a b c Backwell L, d'Errico F, Wadley L.(2008). Middle Stone Age bone tools from the Howiesons Poort layers, Sibudu Cave, South Africa. Journal of Archaeological Science, 35:1566-1580. doi:10.1016/j.jas.2007.11.006
  6. ^ a b c Wadley L, Hodgskiss T, Grant M. (2009). Implications for complex cognition from the hafting of tools with compound adhesives in the Middle Stone Age, South Africa. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 106:9590–9594 PMID 19433786
  7. ^ Brooks 2006
  8. ^ Barham 2002a
  9. ^ 2001:70
  10. ^ Deino and McBrearty, 2002
  11. ^ Mellars 2006
  12. ^ Manica et al. 2007
  13. ^ Manica et al. 2007:346
  14. ^ cf. Chase and Dibble 1990; Foley and Lahr 1997, 2003; Gibson 1996; Renfrew 1996; Deacon 2001; Henshilwood and Marean 2003
  15. ^ Klein, R. G., (2000). Archaeology and the evolution of human behavior. Evolutionary Anthropology 9: 17-36.
  16. ^ Mcbrearty S, Brooks AS. (2000). The revolution that wasn't: a new interpretation of the origin of modern human behavior. J Hum Evol. 39(5):453-563. PMID 11102266
  17. ^ 2001:6
  18. ^ Wynn T. (2009). Hafted spears and the archaeology of mind.Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 106:9544–9545 PMID 19506246
  19. ^ Watts, I. (2002). Ochre in the Middle Stone Age of southern Africa: ritualized display or hide preservative? South African Archaeological Bulletin 57: 64-74.
  20. ^ Barham, L. S. (2002). Systematic pigment use in the Middle Pleistocene of south central Africa. Current Anthropology 31(1): 181–190.
  21. ^ e.g. Klein 2000; Henshilwood et al. 2001b
  22. ^ Yellen et al. 1995; Brooks et al. 1995
  23. ^ Henshilwood et al. 2001b
  24. ^ Richerson and Boyd 1998
  25. ^ Rappaport 1999
  26. ^ Bickerton 2003
  27. ^ Holloway 1996
  28. ^ Gabora 2001
  29. ^ Skoyles JR. Sagan D. (2002) Up from Dragons: The evolutio nof intelligence. McGraw-Hill.
  30. ^ d'Errico F, Vanhaeren M, Wadley L. (2008). Possible shell beads from the Middle Stone Age layers of Sibudu Cave, South Africa. Journal of Archaeological Science, 35: 2675-2685. doi:10.1016/j.jas.2008.04.023


  • Barham, L. S. (2001). Central Africa and the emergence of regional identity in the Middle Pleistocene, in L. S. Barham and K. Robson-Brown (eds.), Human Roots: Africa and Asia in the Middle Pleistocene. Bristol: Western Academic and Specialist Press, 65-80.
  • Barham. L. S. (2002a) Backed tools in Middle Pleistocene central Africa and their evolutionary significance. Journal of Human Evolution 43: 585–603.
  • Bickerton, D. (2003). Symbol and structure: A comprehensive framework for language evolution, in M. H. Christiansen and S. Kirby (eds.), Language evolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 77–93.
  • Brooks, A. S. (2006). Recent perspectives on the Middle Stone Age of Africa. Paper presented at the African Genesis Symposium on Hominid Evolution in Africa: Johannesburg.
  • Chase, P. G. and Dibble, H. L. (1990). On the emergence of modern humans. Current Anthropology 31(1): 58-59.
  • Deacon, H. J. (2001). Modern human emergence: an African archaeological perspective, in P. V. Tobias, M. A. Raath, J. Maggi-Cecchi, and G. A. Doyle (eds.), Humanity from African naissance to coming millennia-Colloquia in human biology and palaeoanthropology. Florence: Florence University Press, 217–226.
  • Deino, A.L. and McBrearty, S. (2002). 40Ar/39Ar dating of the Kapthurin Formation, Baringo, Kenya. Journal of Human Evolution 42: 185–210.
  • Foley, R. and Lahr, M. (1997). Mode 3 technologies and the evolution of modern humans. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 1: 3-36.
  • Foley, R. and Lahr, M. (2003). On stony ground: lithic technology, human evolution and the emergence of culture. Evolutionary Anthropology 12: 109-122.
  • Gabora, L. (2001). Cognitive mechanisms underlying the origin and evolution of culture. Ph. D thesis. Center Leo Apostel For interdisciplinary Studies, Vrije Universiteit Brussels, Brussels, Belgium.
  • Gibson, K. R. (1996). The biocultural human brain, seasonal migrations, and the emergence of the Upper Palaeolithic, in P. Mellars and K. R. Gibson (eds.), Modeling the early human mind. Cambridge: McDonald Institute Monographs, 33-48.
  • Henshilwood, C. S. and Marean, C. W. (2003). The origin of modern human behaviour: A review and critique of models and test implications. Current Anthropology 44(5): 627-651.
  • Henshilwood, C. S., d’Errico, F., Marean, C., Milo, R., and Yates, R. (2001b). An early bone tool industry from the Middle Stone Age at Blombos Cave, South Africa: implications for the origins of modern human behaviour, symbolism and language. Journal of Human Evolution 41: 631-678.
  • Holloway, R. (1996). Evolution of the human brain, in A. Lock and C. R. Peters (eds.), Handbook of human symbolic evolution. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Manica, A., Amos, W., Balloux, F., Hanihara, T. (2007). The effect of ancient population bottlenecks on human phenotypic variation. Nature 448:346-348.
  • McDougall, I., Brown, F. H. and Fleagle, J. G. (2005). Stratigraphic placement and age of modern humans from Kibish, Ethiopia. Nature 433: 733-6.
  • Milo, R. G. (1998). Evidence for hominid predation at Klasies River Mouth, South Africa, and its implications for the behavior of early modern humans. Journal of Archaeological Science 25: 99-133.
  • Rappaport, R. A. (1999). Ritual and religion in the making of humanity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Renfrew, C. (1996). The sapient behaviour paradox: how to test for potential?, in K. Gibson and P. Mellars (eds.), Modeling the early human mind. Cambridge: McDonald Institute Monographs, 11-14.
  • Richerson, P. and Boyd, R. (1998). The Pleistocene and the origins of human culture: built for speed. Paper presented at the 5th Biannual Symposium on the Science of Behaviour: Behaviour, Evolution and Culture. University of Guadalajara, Mexico.
  • White, T. D., Asfaw, B., Degusta, D., Gilbert, H., Richards, G. D., Suwa, G., and Clark Howell, F. (2003). Pleistocene Homo sapiens from Middle Awash, Ethiopia. Nature 423: 742 –7.
  • Wurz, S., le Roux, N. J., Gardner, S., and Deacon, H. J. (2003). Discriminating between the end products of the earlier Middle Stone Age sub-stages at Klasies River using biplot methodology. Journal of Archaeological Science 30: 1107–1126.


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