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Reconstructing Middle Stone Age mobility patterns from raw material transfers in South Africa’s Still Bay (77–70 ka) technocomplex

Abstract

South Africa’s Still Bay technocomplex (77–70 ka) is an early example of a technological system organised around the production of bifacial points. Noting the diversity of raw materials used and the frequency of non-local raw materials found among excavated bifacial point assemblages, numerous researchers have argued that Still Bay foragers were highly mobile. This pattern, however, is in contrast to that observed in some open-air surface Still Bay assemblages, where raw material diversity among bifacial points is low and local rocks dominate. We resolve this apparent discrepancy by combining information on raw material distribution, least-cost path analysis, and artefact data from two rock shelters and numerous open-air sites located along the Doring and Olifants Rivers in South Africa. The results demonstrate that raw material selection for bifacial point production was responsive to geological resources within river catchments but that bifacial points were transported regularly between catchments over minimum distances of 30–60 km. Our data appears to support the inference that Still Bay foragers were wide-ranging.

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Data availability

All data used in this paper are available on request.

Notes

  1. To avoid confusion, we will deploy a convention in the text of this paper of referring to archaeological sites by their acronyms (HRS, MRS, etc.) and silcrete sources by their full names (Swartvlei, Agtersfontein, etc.).

  2. For a systematic survey of finds in the Olifants River, see Hallinan, E. and J. Parkington (2017). “Stone Age landscape use in the Olifants River Valley, Clanwilliam, Western Cape, South Africa.” Azania: Archaeological Research in Africa 52(3): 324–372.

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Acknowledgements

This work is the outcome of many years of data collection, undertaken by numerous colleagues and funded by different sources. Mackay’s original data in the Olifants River valley was funded by the Australian National University and undertaken with students from the University of Cape Town, particularly Will Archer and Nic Wiltshire. Excavation of Mertenhof and silcrete surveys in the Doring River valley were both funded by Australian Research Council grant DE130100068, with key support from Aara Welz and Galen Miller-Atkins. Data collection for the Doring River Archaeology Project, including silcrete surveys in the Olifants River valley, was funded by Australian Research Council grant FT160100139. McNeil’s participation in the DRAP and other data collection relevant to this paper were funded by the Harvard University. We thank the editor, Patrick Schmidt, and two anonymous reviewers for their help in improving the manuscript.

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Mackay, A., Ames, C.J.H., McNeil, JL. et al. Reconstructing Middle Stone Age mobility patterns from raw material transfers in South Africa’s Still Bay (77–70 ka) technocomplex. Archaeol Anthropol Sci 14, 14 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12520-021-01484-0

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Keywords

  • Middle Stone Age
  • South Africa
  • Still Bay
  • Bifacial technology
  • Mobility
  • Silcrete
  • Least-cost paths