chapter  6
23 Pages

Archaeological evidence for human social learning and sociality in the Middle Stone Age of South Africa

WithJayne Wilkins

The Middle Stone Age record of southern Africa provides evidence for the origins and evolution of complex social relationships, and potentially qualities like humility, wisdom, and grace that helped humans navigate these complex social relationships. Homo sapiens first appear in Africa ~200,000–150,000 years ago during the Middle Stone Age. While there are anatomical changes that mark the speciation of Homo sapiens, they are not associated with major technological or behavioural changes. Instead, the archaeological record documents spatially and temporally discontinuous variation in social learning mechanisms and sociality. Here, recent evidence is reviewed in the Middle Stone Age of southern Africa, between ~500,000 and ~50,000 years ago. Evidence for early human social learning and sociality derives from studies on how stone tools are manufactured, how far stone raw material is moved across the landscape, and the material evidence for symbolling, such as brightly coloured ochre and incised objects. Stone tool technologies during some periods in the Middle Stone Age are consistent with an increased emphasis on imitative social learning, which could be associated with the need to communicate group membership by replicating the behaviours of others, and/or with increased self-regulation. For other periods in the Middle Stone Age, variation in stone tool manufacturing strategies suggest more emphasis on emulative, rather than imitative, social learning, which may be linked to behavioural plasticity and innovation. Stone raw material is sometimes transported long distances, which could be indicative of inter-group interaction. At many sites, however, evidence for the long-distance transfer of stone raw materials is lacking. Ochre and incised objects are common in some Middle Stone Age contexts, but rare in others. It is suggested that the nature of human social learning and sociality changed through the Middle Stone Age, and in many cases these changes did not occur in a temporally vectored manner. This synthesis is not consistent with models of human cognition that emphasize behavioural or cognitive progression over time. The archaeological record to date suggests that at least some human capacities for navigating complex social relationships may have been present at the onset of the Middle Stone Age before the origins of Homo sapiens, and they are variably expressed through time.