A Handaxe from Kathu Pan and the chronology of the ESA /MSA in South Africa

Handaxe made of
banded ironstone, Kathu Pan,
McGregor Museum, Kimberley
Photo © Michael Cope

This Handaxe was found embedded in an exposed stratigraphic sequence in a sinkhole at Kathu Pan in the Northern Cape, South Africa, and dated by association with tooth-plates of the extinct Elephas Reckii  to approximately 750 k.a. BP. This post was stimulated by the comments of Michael Cope. Showing this Biface  is an exception from the rule of only displaying artifacts from my own collection.

Considerable progress has been made in the excavation and dating of  Pleolithic sites in Southern Africa during the decades after the Klasies River project. Handaxes and  cleavers have their first appearance nearly synchronous with the earliest appearance of Homo ergaster at ca. 1.8 myr BP. The production of these artifacts (Large cutting tools, LCTs) can be seen as the expression of a deliberate choice of early humans for a standardized design of artifacts. I have discussed the cognitive and/or cultural significance of such a design and the variability in the outline shape of LCTs in some earlier posts. Hot debates have arisen especially about the cognitive significance of bilateral symmetry and the supposed presence or absence of “mental templates”.

In East Africa, LCTs have a considerable age and are older than the Acheulian anywhere in the World. At Kokiselei 4, an archaeological site from the Nachukui formation (West Turkana, Kenya) early Acheulian tools have been securely dated back to 1.76 myr ago. The dates of several sites between 1.8 and 1,4 Mya BP are controversial (e.g. Peninj; Tanzania at 1.7–1.3 Mya). On the other hand the Acheulian at Konso-Gardula; Ethiopia and the Site EF-HR in the upper part of middle Bed II at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania are unequivocal 1.4 Mya old.

Acheulian: The most proliferative Acheulian deposits in South Africa are the cave sites within the Gauteng area (e.g., Sterkfontein, Swartkrans, and Kromdraai, dated to 1.4–1.1Mya), the sequences of the Free State (e.g., Vereeniging and Cornelia, dated to1.1–0.8 Mya ) the Vaal River sites (e.g., Pneil and Canteen Kopje) dated to 1.4–1.2 Mya, the series of Pan deposits around Kimberley (e.g., Kathu Pan at ca. 750 k.a. BP and Rooidam), several dune sequences of the western Cape coast (e.g., Elandsfontein dated to 1.1–0.8 Mya and Duinefontein II at >800  k.a. according to the faunal remains), and a series of isolated caves occurring throughout the country (e.g., Wonderwerk Cave in Northern Cape [<1.6 – >1.1Mya], the Cave of Hearths [Bed I-III] in Limpopo Province dated to 670–560 k.a. , and Montagu Cave in Western Cape). Other localities were detected at Amanzi Springs (Eastern Cape) and in the Mapangubwe National Park along the Limpopo River (Limpopo Province). Well-dated Acheulian sites are still few and there are difficulties of dating caves and river sequences, where much of this material is preserved.

Victoria West: Prepared giant core technology (Victoria West technology) has been recovered from a stratified Acheulian in stratum 2a at Canteen Koppie. The stratum 2a contains an Acheulian assemblage that is overlain by Fauresmith material in stratum 1 , where it is then followed by an MSA which has dates of 120–80 ka. The Victoria West technology therefore appears to be associated with terminal Acheulian artifacts and is older than the Fauresmith complex. If the age estimates for a similar industry at Kathu Pan are extrapolated, then stratum 2a at Canteen Koppie should be older than 540–470 k.a. The beginnings of the Victoria West technology remain uncertain till now although some archeologists propose a “long chronology” beginning at 1.35 Mya BP. For sure Victoria West cores are much older than the first appearance of the Levallois-technology in Europe at 300 k.a. BP.

ESA–MSA transition:The timing and character of the ESA–MSA transition in Southern Africa is as yet unclear. New data from stratified Fauresmith sites i suggest that this industry, which combines small refined handaxes with technological components characteristic of the MSA (prepared cores, blades, Levallois points, convex scrapers), maybe as old as 542–435 k.a. (Wonderwerk Cave MU4 , Kathu Pan 1). The presence of blade tools and prepared core technology in deposits dated to >400 k.a. at KP-1 is of considerable interest. Blade tools co-occur with Acheulian bifaces, Levallois flakes and points at the site of LHA/GnJh-03 in the Kapthurin Formation (Kenya) dated to 545-509 k.a. , preceding anatomical modernity in hominins.

Finally, typical  MSA- ensembles, lacking the presence of handaxes, appeared at roughly between 300 and 250 k.a. BP (Florisbad and Sterkfontein-Lincoln Cave). The Kathu Pan MSA at 336–254 ka is potentially slightly older.

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About Katzman

During my whole life I was fascinated by stone age artefacts. Not only the aesthetic qualities of these findings, but also the stories around them and the considerations arising from their discovery, are a part of my blog. Comments and contributions are allways welcome! About me: J.L. Katzman (Pseudonym). Born in Vienna. Left Austria in 1974 and did not regret. Studied Medicine and Prehistory at a German University. Member of a Medical Department at a German University. Copyright 2010-2017 by JLK. All Rights Reserved. You are welcome to use material in these posts so long as you cite the work.
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4 Responses to A Handaxe from Kathu Pan and the chronology of the ESA /MSA in South Africa

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