Dating of Howieson's Poort and Still Bay industries

5 minute read

Zenobia Jacobs and colleagues have a paper in this week’s Science that provides age estimates for two of the MSA industries of Southern Africa: the Howieson’s Poort and Still Bay industries. Here’s the abstract:

The expansion of modern human populations in Africa 80,000 to 60,000 years ago and their initial exodus out of Africa have been tentatively linked to two phases of technological and behavioral innovation within the Middle Stone Age of southern Africathe Still Bay and Howieson's Poort industriesthat are associated with early evidence for symbols and personal ornaments. Establishing the correct sequence of events, however, has been hampered by inadequate chronologies. We report ages for nine sites from varied climatic and ecological zones across southern Africa that show that both industries were short-lived (5000 years or less), separated by about 7000 years, and coeval with genetic estimates of population expansion and exit times. Comparison with climatic records shows that these bursts of innovative behavior cannot be explained by environmental factors alone.

It’s a dating paper, and I like the dating parts. The review of why these two MSA industries are important, I think, overstates the issues to a considerable extent. Yes, there are some interesting elements of the two industries, but these are paralleled in some other MSA industries, both earlier and later, in East and North Africa – not to mention the Neandertal-associated Middle Paleolithic industries of the Near East and Europe. There is no reason at all to suppose that Howieson’s Poort (or the earlier Still Bay) was made by people who embarked from southern Africa on an “out of Africa exodus.” The southern African sites are important enough for what they tell us about cultural variability; I don’t see the need to exaggerate their significance to the global story.

In many ways, the paper relies on similar methods as found in the 2007 paper by Michael Waters and Thomas Stafford, “Redefining the age of Clovis.” In that paper, the authors applied a statistical model to new and existing radiocarbon dates, which allowed them to conclude that the age interval represented by Clovis sites is relatively narrow – probably as little as 200 years.

That conclusion has not gone unchallenged (e.g., Haynes et al. 2007), in particular on the basis of some earlier dates which might indicate an initially rare Clovis lasted for some time before a brief florescence. Anytime we have to deal with dates from different methods or different laboratories, there is the potential that some will be systematically different. Should we dismiss outliers? Or are they essential evidence of a more extensive time range, during which an industry was relatively rare? Hamilton and Buchanan (2007) found a spatial gradient in Clovis radiocarbon dates, suggesting that they represented a wave of advance from north to south. That observation doesn’t refute the short chronology, it refines our notion of how long an industry should persist, and shows that it need not represent a spatially uniform population.

In the current paper on Howieson’s Poort and Still Bay dating, Jacobs and colleagues took the approach of systematically providing new OSL dates for nine sites. That deals with ambiguity about earlier dates and different methods quite simply: The authors did not rely on dates from other labs and sources. They do present a figure that puts other labs’ dates in the context of their own results (they are consistent with the paper’s conclusions), but these do not form the main interpretive context.

The essential picture from the paper is figure 4:

Howieson's Poort chronology

This shows the cluster of dates that fit into Howieson’s Poort phase, all consistent with a range from around 60,000 to 65,000 years ago, a cluster for the initial post-Howieson’s Poort deposits, most consistent with a date around 57,000 years ago, and a smaller cluster of earlier, Still Bay levels. Considering the problems that have plagued OSL dating up to now, this is an impressive level of consistency. Comparing many dates from different sites gives a solid impression of a short time span for the technology.

Unlike the case of Clovis, Jacobs and colleagues found no spatial pattern in the dates, even though they did look. The figure also shows paleoclimate evidence from ice cores; the Howieson’s Poort appears to correspond to a long warming period, but it spans the range of climate from cold to warm. That’s what the abstract means when it says that environmental factors do not suffice to explain the industry.

I think the dates are important because of what they can tell us about cultural and biological variability within the MSA. From genetics, we know that the MSA African population was apparently structured, with a clear possibility that the genetic differentiation was once higher than today. If so, we might expect long-lasting cultural differences between African regions. We will need better dates across Africa—not just southern Africa—to really compare regions with each other. Howieson’s Poort and Still Bay cultures are a start in this process.

The short duration of the two industries is a very important fact. It was already suspected that the two existed for only a short time – they are not found in every well-stratified site, and their recognition depends on a few relatively rare artifacts. A rare, high-information artifact is useful as a type fossil, but it is not likely to have persisted for very long in the cultural history of an ancient people.

The data seem to indicate that Howieson’s Poort lasted around 5000 years, and spanned an area of between 1.5 and 2 million square kilometers. That falls well within the ranges of time span and duration for the industries of the European Upper Paleolithic, and for that matter the later Middle Paleolithic of Europe. The Still Bay, even shorter and smaller, is also within this range. It will be important to assess whether other MSA variants and earlier Neandertal-associated industries of Europe and West Asia also fall within a cohesive distribution of time and space.

My inclination is to interpret these cultural distributions in terms of information exchanges. In that regard, it is essential to consider smaller units of information transfer. An entire culture is inherited by no one. A stone tool manufacturing technique, on the other hand, may be manifested in multiple artifacts and may have been learned by many individuals over thousands of years. I would be very interested in the temporal patterning within the Howieson’s Poort; a question that the dates may now allow archaeologists to answer.


Jacobs Z, Roberts RG, Galbraith RF, Deacon HJ, Grün R, Mackay A, Mitchell P, Vogelsang R, Wadley L. 2008. Ages for the Middle Stone Age of Southern Africa: Implications for human behavior and dispersal. Science 322:733-735. doi:10.1126/science.1162219

Hamilton MJ, Buchanan B. 2007. Spatial gradients in Clovis-age radiocarbon dates across North America suggest rapid colonization from the north. Proc Nat Acad Sci USA 104:15625-15630. doi:10.1073/pnas.0704215104

Haynes G and 14 others. 2007. Comment on "Redefining the age of Clovis: Implications for the peopling of the Americas." Science 317:320. doi:10.1126/science.1141960

Waters MR, Stafford TW, Jr. 2007. Redefining the age of Clovis: Implications for the peopling of the Americas. Science 315:1122-1126. doi:10.1126/science.1137166