The Stone Age in the Magaliesberg

The Stone Age in the Magaliesberg





Incredible legacy of the Stone Age in the Magaliesberg

The Magaliesberg – in particular the Cradle of Humankind – is world famous for what it tells us about the very ancient origins of humankind but the area is at least as interesting for the stories it tells about the ancient origins of us: modern humans.

As far as we know, humans began to exhibit modern behaviour some 150 000 to 160 000 BP (where “BP” means “before the present”).

This was the time of the Middle Stone Age which gave way to the  Late Stone Age (LSA) about 50 000 years BP (the Early Stone Age began about 500 000 years ago).

In southern Africa LSA people may be ancestral to the San/Bushman hunter/gatherers. In understanding the Magaliesberg’s LSA significance it is useful to talk about the Holocene, which refers to the past 10 000 years. Academics don’t particularly like using the term “recent” with reference to the Holocene but, in terms of human development, that is just what it is…

How the Magaliesberg tells ancient stories about modern humans

To get a real feel of the early history of modern humans (us) the Magaliesberg is at least as interesting archaeologically as it is interesting paleontologically.

Two sites in the Magaliesberg (along the R513) are particularly interesting in terms of what they tell us about the LSA. These are the Jubilee Shelter and Cave James, two sites that have been extensively studied, particularly by Wits University’s Professor Lyn Wadley.

Jubilee Shelter shows evidence of having been occupied from 30 000 BP  to 1000 BP, artefacts recovered from that long-ago period showing a transition from the Middle Stone Age to the early LSA, as well as much more recently. During the hugely important Middle to Late Stone Age transition phase, people began to fashion more sophisticated stone tools, and a wider range of stone tools, as well as tools made out of bone. There is also strong evidence that around 20 000 BP populations started to increase sharply after remaining little changed for perhaps hundreds of thousands of years.


Jubilee Shelter being excavated by Wits University archaeologists


Jubilee Shelter, on the northern slopes of the Magaliesberg proper, photographed from the exterior

But it is when considering the much more recent occupants of Jubilee Shelter and Cave James that the archaeological record (and Wadley’s work) become really interesting.

Archaeologists differentiate between two LSA technologies: Wilton and Smithfield. In broad terms, the Wilton industry contained more sophisticated microlithic (“lithic” meaning stone) scrapers, backed bladelets and segments (bits of half-moon-shaped stone that were used in weapons and implements, often affixed to pieces of wood) than did the Smithfield industry. (We shouldn’t think of the Wilton and Smithfield groups as separate ethnic identities; rather, they are defined by their different technologies.) Wilton and Smithfield industries were once thought to be contemporaneous, meaning that they were made at the same time. Conventional wisdom held that the Wilton industry occurred in coastal areas of South Africa and parts of Zimbabwe and Zambia. The interior parts of South Africa were believed to have been the home of the Smithfield industry.


Stone and bone tools from Jubilee Shelter. Those on the bottom date from before 8 500 BP; those in the middle from between 8 500 BP and 6000 BP and those on the top from 6 500 BP to 3 000 BP.

But during the mid-Holocene – about 7000 BP to 3000BP there is virtually no evidence of human occupation of the interior, areas such as today’s Gauteng and North West. In fact, until recently archaeologists could find no human occupation between 1 100 BP and 9 500 BP.

Why did we suddenly disappear?

Where had the people gone? Or why had they chosen not to occupy these parts of South Africa? The absence of people in this period was tantalizing, given that those living at that time were so similar to us.

About 18 000 BP southern Africa reached a glacial maximum but the ice sheets that had covered much of the subcontinent for millennia had receded by about 11 000 BP. From 11 000 BP the weather became drier and the summer-rainfall pattern which we recognise today became more established. There was, however, less rainfall than previously and by 8 500 BP at Jubilee Shelter there is strong evidence that bushveld was replacing open grassland. One indication of the change in the dominant biome is the fact that animal grazers began to die out while browsers started to dominate. (The most recent remains of a now extinct animal, a species of springbok called antidorcus bondi was found at Kruger Cave and dated to 7 600 BP.) Prof Wadley believes that by the mid-Holocene temperatures were very similar to those of today.

The empty land?

So where were the people in the mid-Holocene?

Previously it was thought that the absence of people in the interior during the mid-Holocene had to do with the fact that the interior had become much more arid than the coastal areas where, it was assumed, food would have been more abundant.

(In much later history the so-called myth of the empty land was to arouse intense debate, even acrimony, not to mention political rancour. Much more benign was the mid-Holocene myth of the empty land, a belief with which only academics really concerned themselves. A few decades ago the myth of the mid-Holocene empty land began to be exploded – by Prof Wadley, and by her findings in the Magaliesberg.)

A human black hole

In the 1970s the Magaliesberg first shone something of a light into this Holocene black hole when charcoal remains found at Kruger Cave (in Olifantspoort) by Professor Revil Mason were radiocarbon-dated to approximately 7 570 BP. But still there remained thousands of years with no indication of human habitation. Then, in the 1980s, Prof Wadley’s research, again in the Magaliesberg, proved that South Africa’s interior had been occupied during the mid-Holocene, specifically at Jubilee Shelter and at nearby Cave James.

At Jubilee Shelter Prof Wadley and her colleagues found compelling evidence that the site was occupied between 6 490 and 3 100 BP and that, at least in the latter period the occupiers made the Wilton Industrial Complex.

While the area north of the Vaal River has been extensively researched and excavated, not one site other than Jubilee has yet been found to demonstrate mid-Holocene Wilton occupation.  Between eight and five thousand years ago, then, our ancestors were indeed living in Gauteng and the North West; it just appears that they chose to live in the Magaliesberg. We like to think that they knew a good place when they saw it. . .

Glimpses into our Stone Age past

Jubilee Shelter and Cave James are just a kilometre or so apart but the evidence is that they were occupied, and used, in very different ways by LSA people.

On the northern slopes of the Magaliesberg, Jubilee Shelter is squarely in the bushveld biome while, closer to the summit of the range, Cave James is surrounded by sour grassland (for more on this, see the Magaliesberg Biosphere app story, Magaliesberg – a natural dividing line, narrated by Vincent Carruthers.

The mid-Holocene occupation dates for Jubilee Shelter are between 6 500 BP and 3 100 BP while the dates for Cave James are 6 130 BP and 3 850 BP. Pretty similar in terms of dates but worlds apart in terms of how they were occupied and used…

Stone tools excavated at Jubilee consist of, in Prof Wadley’s words, “a great many formal components, including small segments, backed bladelets, finely worked scrapers, and a variety of groundstone work”. The people making these ancient tools used quartz which they gathered from their surroundings but they knew their materials, fetching chert, jaspilite and chalcedony from outcrops 20km or 30km away. They also left behind them ostrich eggshell beads and bone implements.

In the mid-Holocene the occupants of Jubilee had, as you would expect, a hearth, or fireplace. Beads and bead-making debris were found to the left of this hearth (looking into the shelter) while stone and bone making tools were found on the right of the hearth. Making inferences from the behaviour of modern Stone Age peoples, Wadley and her team believe that this separation of activities reflects the left/right separation of the sexes, with the women on the left, working with eggshell beads, and the men working to make stone and bone tools, on the right.

It’s in the differences between how Cave James and Jubilee Shelter were used, though that we get the greatest, most interesting insights into how people lived those thousands of years ago. Hunter/gatherers lived nomadic lives, hunting wildlife and gathering edible plants and fruits. Almost all of them lived in small bands consisting, typically, of not much more than extended nuclear families and only came together (a process called “aggregation”) at particular times of the year. To quote Prof Wadley again: “Aggregation was a time when important information was exchanged about the condition of the veld and the abundance of resources in neighbouring areas. It was also a time when relations gathered together, when there was group hunting and gathering, socializing, making and mending of tools, making and exchanging of gifts, marriage brokering, and ritual.”

From the painstaking work done by academics at Wits University we know that Jubilee Shelter was occupied during the winter months and that it was a place of aggregation; this was where bands of hunter/gatherers would get together to exchange news, gossip, gifts – and eligible sons and daughters. By contrast, Cave James is much poorer in “fancy goods” and was occupied in the summer months. “It [Cave James] contains no ornaments or bone tools and few formal stone tools compared with Jubilee,” Prof Wadley wrote. Cave James, in other words, was what is called a “dispersal” site, a place where small groups of hunter/gatherers (the extended families referred to) would stay and shelter intermittently.

Enter the farmers

Shortly after 1 800 BP the human world of modern-day South Africa was rudely and dramatically interrupted by the first arrivals of entirely new, indeed alien, people, people who had migrated to the southern parts of the continent from far up north, latterly from East Africa. These new arrivals were, unlike the hunter/gatherers, negroid “Bantu” pastoralists and agriculturalists. Their way of life was completely different to that of the only humans who had lived in southern Africa for tens, even hundreds of years: these settlers had herds of cattle and they planted and cultivated crops, requiring them to settle in the same place and establish villages. They were farmers.

Most significantly, the new people brought with them a knowledge of mining, smelting and forging iron. In southern Africa and in the Magaliesberg the Stone Age was giving way to the Iron Age.

In this tumultuous meeting of two very different worlds, Jubilee Shelter and Cave James give us fascinating glimpses into a world in profound flux.

Without any written (and very few inscribed records) the lives of the LSA inhabitants in this period of contact must be inferred from what they left behind, without consciously meaning to do so. Fortunately, Jubilee Shelter and Cave James have left us remarkable clues as to how the lives of the hunter/gatherers changed during the great period of contact…

Consider these markers of how the LSA way of life changed with the arrival of the farmers:

Within the space of a few hundred years the seeds of edible tree fruits left behind at Jubilee Shelter, including those of the marula, began to decline dramatically. So (we think) did the remains left behind of animals people would have hunted, including relatively easily hunted tortoises, bush pigs, warthogs and duiker. At the same time, we see a drop-off in the numbers of stone and bone implements, and eggshell beads, being manufactured at Jubilee Cave. Clearly, the stone-age lives of the people who had aggregated at Jubilee Shelter for countless thousands of years had undergone a most fundamental change.

The answer to what had changed their lives so dramatically lies largely in another site in the Magaliesberg, a site less than 10km away, at Broederstroom. An Iron Age site; a farming village.

Sifting through the charcoal remains at Jubilee Shelter, Wits archaeologists made a surprising discovery: dating from about 1450 BP was a pottery sherd, with multiple herringbone decorations on its neck and shoulders. LSA people didn’t know how to make pottery so here was clear, compelling evidence that they had obtained, and were using, goods from the new Iron Age settlers of their region. By 1350 BP it is clear that activity at Jubilee Shelter had declined, if not been abandoned almost altogether.

What explained the pottery, and the shelter’s decline was, “obviously”, the rise of Broederstroom (a site behind the Total Garage on the R512) which proves occupation from about 1650 BP to approximately 1 400 BP (see Broederstroom – site of prehistoric settlements, also on the Magaliesberg Biosphere app).

It might seem “obvious” to infer that, like modern migrants, the hunter/gatherer inhabitants of Jubilee Shelter and Cave James simply abandoned their age-old ways fewer than 2 000 years ago to become part of the new settled local economic order, bartering with the farmers and selling their labour and local skills and knowledge. But, sadly for us inquisitive moderns, the early phases of interaction between these two groups of people isn’t that clear cut. The bit of pottery found at Jubilee and dated to as far back as 1 800 is known as Bambata pottery, a type of pottery which is taken as being an indicator of the early Iron Age settlers in southern Africa. Distinguished by thin necks and dense decoration, a complication lies in the fact that Bambata pottery may not have first been brought to the local hunter/gatherers by the Bantu settlers of the Magaliesberg but may, actually, have arrived from up north through the trade/gift-giving networks of the San people; as yet, we’re not entirely clear on the origins of these ancient relics in the Magaliesberg.

(You can imagine that, a few thousand years ago, a Bambata pot fetched from faraway Botswana or even Angola and given, at a Jubilee Shelter aggregation as a bride price, would have been greatly prized.)

By whichever means that first bit of Bambata pottery arrived in the Magaliesberg,  a few hundred years later it is clear that life at Jubilee Shelter had undergone a fundamental change. Here is how Prof Wadley described this transformation: “The changes wrought at Jubilee Shelter when Broederstroom was occupied suggest that the shelter was being used by people whose livelihood had change considerably from that of a few centuries earlier. Evidence for aggregation is absent and the site was occupied for at least some part of summer as well as in winter.

“Hunter/gatherer mobility patterns were thus quite different from those of previous times. This evidence is critical for pointing to amicable, symbiotic relationships between the hunter/gatherers and the farmers. Clearly hunter/gatherers welcomed the presence of the Broederstroom village and changed their mobility pattern in order to remain near it. Although the precise nature of the hunter/gatherer and farmer interaction is not clear, the changes at Jubilee Shelter suggest increased dependence of the hunter/gatherers on the Iron Age village, causing their aggregation and dispersal patterns to be disturbed.”

At Broederstroom there is evidence that the farmers and stone age people may have intermarried, with the location of at least one burial (underneath the important central kraal area) likely indicating that the offspring of such marriages could be held in high esteem. Probably the LSA people of the Magaliesberg gave the villagers bush meat and skins (especially much coveted leopard skins); the presence of LSA stone scrapers found at Broederstroom would appear to bear out this belief. The hunter/gatherers almost certainly also traded ostrich eggshell beads and herbal medicines while selling their skills as hunters, shamans and rainmakers, also possibly performing duties as herders. In return they received food, pottery and, perhaps most important in disrupting their lifestyles, iron implements.

More than 1 000 but fewer than 2 000 years ago, the social fabric, indeed the whole world view, of the people who had inhabited South Africa alone for much more than 100 000 years was completely up-ended by new arrivals. Nowhere else is this immense story of the clash of societies and world views better told than here, in the Magaliesberg.

Soon will turn its attention to the next great phase in the human occupation of the Magaliesberg: the Iron Age.

The Magaliesberg really is a remarkable place, full of diversity – and full of human drama extending over not just hundreds of years but tens of thousands of years.

  • I am terrifically indebted to Professor Lyn Wadley (to  give her her full title) Honorary Professor of Archaeology at the Evolutionary Studies Institute, Centre of Excellence, Palaeosciences University of the Witwatersrand, for taking the time and trouble to explain to me her remarkable work in the Magaliesberg