Stone Age at WAR: ‘Wealth of archaeology in West Africa’ reveals repeated coast conquests

Continental coastlines have long been considered potential corridors of previous migration by our ancestors. However, archaeologists have been left frustrated at the lack of evidence concerning occupations of Africa’s tropical coasts during the Stone Age – a period lasting until 3,300BC.

However, landmark new research in eastern Africa has unearthed startling new evidence into distinct behavioural changes near the coast of Kenya during the last glacial phase.

Our new work at Tiémassas offers a neat comparison to recent work on coastal occupations in eastern Africa

Professor Jimbob Blinkhorn

Anthropological research is now playing an increasingly key role in investigating relationships between demographic diversity and behavioural change.

Numerous genetic and palaeo-anthropological studies are also revealing more on the surprising demographic diversity already present in West Africa thousands of years in our past.

Professor Jimbob Blinkhorn, of the Max Panck Institute for the Science of Human History, believes archaeological studies of Stone Age sites are still required to understand how this diversity relates to patterns of behaviour shown in the archaeological record.

He said: ”There are plenty of surface sites that have demonstrated the wealth of Stone Age archaeology in West Africa.

“But to characterise patterns of changing behaviour, we need large, excavated stone tool assemblages that we can clearly date to specific periods.”

Tiémassas is a Stone Age site with a notable history of research, including surface surveys and early excavations in the mid-20th century.

But the lack of systematic study meant the dig was mired in controversy.

Dr Khady Niang of Université Cheikh Anta Diop de Dakar, said in a statement: ”In the past, Tiémassas has been described as a Middle Stone Age, Later Stone Age or Neolithic site, and resolving between these alternatives has important implications for our understanding of behaviour at the site.

“We’ve reviewed previously collected material from the site, conducted new excavations and analysis of stone tools and combined this with dating studies that make Tiémassas a benchmark example of the Middle Stone Age of West Africa.”

Previous research by the team dated a Middle Stone Age occupation at Tiémassas to 45 thousand years ago.

And this latest study extends the timeframe of occupations at the site.

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The discovery of recovered stone tool assemblages have been dated as far back as 62 thousand years ago.

Dr Niang revealed these stone tools importantly contain technologically-distinct types helping characterise the nature of stone tool production during each occupation phase.

She said: ”The Middle Stone Age occupants of Tiémassas employed two distinct technologies – centripetal Levallois and discoidal reduction systems.

“What is really notable is that the stone tool assemblages are really consistent with one another and form a pattern we can match up with the results of earlier excavations too.

“Pulled together, the site tells a clear story of startling technological continuity for nearly 40 thousand years.”

The results of this new research at Tiémassas is expected to revolutionise the dearth of archaeological records concerning West African Middle Stone Age occupations.

Intriguingly, the site’s location is distinct from others dated to the Middle Stone Age in the region, as it is located close to the coast and at the interface of three ecozones – savannahs, forests and mangroves.

Professor Blinkhorn said: ”Our new work at Tiémassas offers a neat comparison to recent work on coastal occupations in eastern Africa.

“They span roughly the same timeframe, have similar ecological characteristics, and are found along tropical coasts.

“But the continuity in behaviour we see at Tiémassas stands in stark contrast to the technological changes observed in eastern Africa, and this reflects a similar pattern seen in genetic and palaeo-anthropological studies of enduring population structure in West Africa.”

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