July 12, 2012

The Neolithic site of Leopard Cave (Namibia)

A new interesting open access paper on the Neolithic of Southern Africa has been published:


The origins of herding practices in southern Africa remain controversial. The first appearance of domesticated caprines in the subcontinent is thought to be c. 2000 years BP; however, the origin of this cultural development is still widely debated. Recent genetic analyses support the long-standing hypothesis of herder migration from the north, while other researchers have argued for a cultural diffusion hypothesis where the spread of herding practices took place without necessarily implicating simultaneous and large population movements. Here we document the Later Stone Age (LSA) site of Leopard Cave (Erongo, Namibia), which contains confirmed caprine remains, from which we infer that domesticates were present in the southern African region as early as the end of the first millennium BC. These remains predate the first evidence of domesticates previously recorded for the subcontinent. This discovery sheds new light on the emergence of herding practices in southern Africa, and also on the possible southward routes used by caprines along the western Atlantic coast.

The caprine (sheep) remains are the oldest ones of the whole region, being dated to c. 2270 BP, almost 200 years (est.) before the next oldest one with a good date (Spoegrivier, Western South Africa, dated to c. 2100 BP). Notice however the "uncertain" much older date for the Orowanjo site near the Angolan border (c. 3100 BP) in the map below:

Fig. 4 - Later Stone Age sites of southern Africa with early evidence of caprines

Caprines are a focus of this research but they are only a minority (2) of the animals identified in Leopard Cave, with bovines (cows) being the most important (16) among domesticates and in general if we exclude ostrich eggshells. Unspecified rodents and birds reach similar figures to those of bovine cattle but these belong to diverse species with all likelihood. 

Besides animal remains the cave has also yielded a dearth of stone artifacts and some pottery. 

It is unclear to which modern ethnic group, if any, can the site be associated with but the area has been traditionally inhabited by the Damara people, who speak either Khoekhoe or sometimes Herero languages but who, like their peculiar Northern Neighbors, the Himba people, are generally speculated to be a different ethnic, cultural and probably also genetic stock from both Khoisan and Bantu peoples. Sadly I do not know of any genetic study on either ethnic group, which may be of great interest for ethnographic and prehistoric reconstruction purposes.

Update (Jul 29): for a new study on Khoesan (and also Damara, Himba, etc.) autosomal genetics see HERE.

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