March 16, 2013

The Katanda harpoons

Recently David Sánchez (of Noticias de Prehistoria - Prehistoria al Día[es]) asked me to collaborate in a series at his blog on the early prehistory and expansion of Homo sapiens, from the viewpoints of both archaeology and population genetics. I gladly accepted, of course. The first articles will be published in the next days/weeks at his blog (I plan to make synthesis of them in English here but not full translations - too much work). The bulk of the archaeological materials will be done by David, while I am taking responsibility mostly for the genetic aspects.

As he has been preparing the first article on the African Middle Stone Age, David stumbled upon a quite fascinating curiosity that was unknown to both and is probably of interest for the readers of this blog: the existence of well-finished proto-harpoons in the MSA of Katanda (North Kivu, D.R. Congo, near Uganda - not to be confused with another larger town named Katanda in the Kasaï-Oriental province) dated to some 110-80,000 years ago. 

I can only imagine that this quite unknown but fascinating materials should be of interest to the readers of this blog. 


Source: Dictionary of Ichtyology



The main direct reference for this unusual finding is:

J.E. Yellen et al., A middle stone age worked bone industry from Katanda, Upper Semliki Valley, Zaire. Science 1995. Pay per viewLINK [doi:10.1126/science.7725100]

Abstract

Three archaeological sites at Katanda on the Upper Semliki River in the Western Rift Valley of Zaire have provided evidence for a well-developed bone industry in a Middle Stone Age context. Artifacts include both barbed and unbarbed points as well as a daggerlike object. Dating by both direct and indirect means indicate an age of approximately 90,000 years or older. Together with abundant fish (primarily catfish) remains, the bone technology indicates that a complex subsistence specialization had developed in Africa by this time. The level of behavioral competence required is consistent with that of upper Paleolithic Homo sapiens sapiens. These data support an African origin of behaviorally as well as biologically modern humans.

This discovery has been mentioned later on by more accessible materials, for example: D'Errico & Stringer 2011, D'Errico 2006 (in French) or a book by Luis Raposo (in Spanish). 



Regardless of the speculations about the so-called "modern human behavior", what it clearly means is that those ancient Africans produced well-finished barbed proto-harpoons (not known of otherwise until Magdalenian times in Europe) and used them to fish in the Semliki river (being one of the earliest documented cases of this kind of economy).

30 comments:

  1. Fascinating.

    However, given that this is a 1995 paper, I would like to know how well-established the dating (-method) was.

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    1. It is 1995, not 1925! :D

      They mention direct and indirect means, what surely means (not having access to the paper myself) either Uranium-series or TL for the direct means and stratigraphy for the indirect ones.

      David did mention, quite vaguely, that "some" are doing as you: questioning the validity of the dates (probably just out of sheer skepticism) but many others do accept them as perfectly valid. As of now I have not read any document that challenges them however, just that vague email reference, so I'm taking them as valid, especially because the growing evidence of "advanced" behavior in the MSA and other early Sapiens cultures.

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    2. 1988. look at the Smithsonian website, it has a hole page of the katanda harpoon point

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  2. Harpoon fishing with tools made from a material other than stone is one of the most distinctive behavioral signatures of H. Sapiens as compared to archaics. I've seen pre-Upper Paleolithic reports of them in Africa before (although only to 75,000 years BP), so this older date is a good fit. Since it coincides with new and improved Out of Africa dates, it also doesn't rule out the hypothesis that Out of Africa may have come at a time of a behavioral modernity revolution relative to pre-Out of Africa era modern humans.

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    1. But it is not a tech that is common among Paleolithic H. sapiens, being only found in certain cultures. Personally, while I find this fascinating, I think it says little about "behavioral modernity" because, honestly I find "behavioral modernity" a quasi-religious dogma.

      For example, commenting earlier with David by email, he mentioned as support for the dates that D'Errico supports it while he has tried to debunk the Neanderthal flute of Djive Babe. My answer was that he was obviously cherry-picking, along with Stringer, in order to push their apparent agenda of "behavioral modernity" speculation. I think that BOTH these harpoons and the Djive Babe flute are examples of a "behavioral modernity" that is not easy to discern among the various Homo species. There's no line separating the behavioral modernity of Neanderthals and Homo sapiens, nor really any such very clear line separating either with their predecesors of distant relatives of the Homo erectus senso lato category.

      "Behavioral modernity" is overrated and quasi-religious IMO. Why not to draw a line at the first computer, the first automobile or the first gunpowder weapon? Those are things that clearly separate us from Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons alike. By comparison they are much much closer to each other: the later are us without modern science and the former... well almost the same.

      Also when they begin ranting about "behavioral modernity" they end up talking of religion. That's because most of them are searching for the moment in which their imaginary God gave us intelligence, as the Bible says (but they interpret liberally). There's no such moment, even if there may be some more marked transition periods and others that are more relaxed, in general the transforming power of human collective and historical intelligence tends to accumulate towards increasing yields all the time. It culminates in us but it was us all the time, even when we were monkeys and even when we were worms. There's no single magic gate but many.

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  3. The harpoons (and the giant catfish remains associated with them) woud likely imply the use of watercraft (e.g. canoes, or rafts perhaps, etc.) by early homo sapiens (which to me is not surprising, and fishing/shelfishing and waterside subsistence strategies are known from early sapiens sites elsewhere in Africa, as well as other traits of behavioral modernity), since the the fish species procured there is rather large and (more importantly) lives only in water, which at the shallowest, is much too deep for a person to stand.

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    1. Sounds reasonable. I would add that it seems now quite clear that some of the oldest migrations out of Africa into West Asia happened via the narrow sea around Bab el Mandeb and not only by land, via Sinai Peninsula. These migrations pre-date the Katanda harpoons by some 35 thousand years, what implies that some humans were using some sort of watercraft (rafts?) since at least 125 Ka BP, probably some time earlier in fact. People also crossed large rivers like the Nile (White and Blue Nile) or the Zambezi at much earlier dates for sure, what cannot really be done without at least a raft.

      The simplest but very functional raft is probably three tied logs, with the one in the middle longer so it acts as a prow, in some places they have still used such simple watercraft until very recently. In SE Asia there's a variant that is made up of some 6 bamboos of roughly the same length (so no prow).

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    5. "These migrations pre-date the Katanda harpoons by some 35 thousand years, what implies that some humans were using some sort of watercraft (rafts?) since at least 125 Ka BP, probably some time earlier in fact. "

      Yes, I think you are right. Some of the waterside adaptations date to arround that time e.g. the fairly advanced cultures of Pinnacle Point South Africa with its heat treated microliths and shell fishing (which I think you may have done a post on a while back) beginning ca 150,000 bc (to ca 70,000 bc) and the Blombos culture (of South Africa) from arround 100,000 bc with its bone tools, shellishing/fishing and heated fat-based paints, etc (and Howieson's Poort etc) and projectiles (and likely microlith/compound harpoons). Some fairly advanced practices also begin earlier in East Africa; for instance, the first projectiles (the obsidian points of throwing spears) dating at Gademotta Ethiopia to about 270,000 bc (likely associated with early sapiens or a transitional sapiens/African "heidelbergensis" hominin immediately ancestral to us)

      "Earliest Stone-Tipped Projectiles from the Ethiopian Rift Date to >279,000 Years Ago"
      http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0078092

      Logs rafts are definately a possibility, and likely used in some places (and surely one of the most ancient watercraft types), and I wonder if dougout canoes (very common in subsaharan Africa including the Katanda region) might have been as well at an early date—a very large one (one of the earliest ever found) comes from ca. 7,000 bc Northern Nigeria at Dufuna (though that is of course another region and very different period. There may also be a the possibility in some regions of boats made from branches and grasses/reeds (like the small craft of the Tasmanian Aborigines). But it would depend on the availability of different materials (e.g. woods)—east Africa likley tended to be less wooded (savannah with sparse trees) compared to central Africa. Native Australian tribes have made a wide variety of watercraft types including both rafts and dougouts (the availability of large bamboo/suitable logs varies both there and in Africa). I think the types of craft depicted in the early documentary, "the Real Eve" were fairly plausible (small log rafts, though they could easily have been larger in reality than in the film. The documentary portrayed them—a little questionably—them as not much bigger than surfboards). Much of the material culture and lifestyle of the people (pre-OOA humans in East Africa) portrayed/reconstructed in the film (e.g. dwellings, clothing) seemed at least loosely inspired by that of the Dassenech and/or similiar tribes in Ethiopia/East Africa (of course without the Pastoralism part—some Dassenech still live by riverine fishing and crocodile hunting), and much of it looked fairly plausible.

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    6. Well, the famous shell beads are dated to some time later in Southern Africa (70 Ka ago?) but are contemporary with the OoA migration in Palestine and North Africa. Not sure if they needed boating to be able to get them (beach-combing is a possibility too) but it certainly indicates a strong interaction with the marine environment in any case.

      At the bottom of THIS ENTRY, several interesting papers on riverine and coastal lifestyle in the OoA time-frame are linked to. I may underline here the occupation of Sai Island, in the Nile, which pre-dates the MSA and is a key site to understand the early Homo sapiens, not anatomically but culturally. The other papers deal with early coastal sites in Eritrea, Arabia and further Asia, all of which must be directly related to the OoA migration.

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    7. Re. dugout canoes, I replied below: wouldn't these need adzes, a tool we don't see until much later in time?

      I don't think I've watched that "The Real Eve" movie, but seems worth a search.

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    11. Yes, the shellbeads date to ca. 70,000 ago, but certain other developements, like (the heat treating of silicrete points at Pinnacle Point SA beginning ca 164 ka (with heated silicrete microliths at appearing there arround 80-70 ka, possibly to make arrows or throwing spears points for more inland hunting and compound tools; possibly knives and/or harpoons), and the making heated of fat based paints (kept in abalone shells) at Blombos arround 100 Ka ago (many of the other famous developements at Blombos are a bit later, around 70 Ka) are substantially earlier
      But I'm not sure what that says about the possibily of watercraft, and whether their waterside lifestyle required boats is somewhat unclear—and beachcombing might be a better description of their subistence strategy. Whether they depended on fish (and how much and what species) might help to determine this (I'm not sure if there's a history of dugout in south Africa in particular either among the Khoisan peoples of among the Bantu—though of course the Bantu peoples a bit further north made them—, and South Africa does not seem to have many large trees ideal for them. And if watercraft existed at that time in that area, they might have been more likely rafts made of thinner branches—or boats and/or rafts of branches and grasses like those of the native Tasmanians—and as you have said there may have been a technological constraint regarding dugouts. East Africa Africa seems to have wider variety of terrains with, some more wooded containing more large trees suitable for rafts made of logs).
      I will check out the links (and look into the evolution of dugout canoes). I find the subject of early homo-sapiens cultures very interesting.

      The Real Eve is quite early (early 2000's, and of course does not include certain recent discoveries in archaeology and genetics, but is still interesting—I tend to enjoy any documentary that reconstructs the lifestyles and cultures of that period—and of our early sapiens ancestors (and really I enjoy history—especially very early history—documentaries in general).
      One recent one also I found quite interesting was the Great Human Odyssey (if you have not seen it)—first link.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jALNCPeoqTw

      https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19679810

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Silcrete#cite_note-5

      http://popular-archaeology.com/issue/september-2011/article/100-000-year-old-art-workshop-

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    14. Regarding The Real Eve (to point out one—in my opinion—likely inaccuracy), in scene where modern humans cross to Yemen from East Africa (across the "gates of grief"), most are shown walking (or swimming with only a few using rafts (the small rafts I mentioned), and none with paddles. I would imagine, if they had rafts (which they likely did) , however small, most would have used them—unless (the makers of the film believed that) rafts (or the wood/other plants to make them) were somehow in very short supply or precious in that area, due to the draughts mentioned in the film, allowing few trees or other useful plants to grow.

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    17. Also, think the adze may date a bit earlier, at least in Africa (or parts of Africa). the paleolithic Sangoan and Lupemban cultures (arround Central Africa—mostly believed to be associated with homo sapiens) produced tools, some thought to be associated with wood working, including some described as picks and adzes (e.g. at Kalambo Falls, Zambia)—and "core axes" (that look somewhat like elongated handaxes) that could possibly have been hafted and used for hacking wood. I think some of the indistries arround East Africa, such as at Sai, are believed to be related to the early Sangoan/Lubemban, but am not sure whether adzes have been found in that in particluar area.

      But I certainly agree that rafts as the (at least generally or most commonly) earliest boats is most likely.

      https://www.britannica.com/topic/Sangoan-industry

      https://www.britannica.com/topic/Lupemban-industry

      http://www.aggsbach.de/2011/01/sangoan-lupeban-core-axe/

      http://www.aggsbach.de/2015/05/msa-point-from-lake-tumba-more-questions-than-answers/

      https://books.google.com/books?id=Y8iiqIZRhQoC&pg=PA291&lpg=PA291&dq=kalambo+falls+adze&source=bl&ots=YyyDXHrKsR&sig=1_BHTnEu6AONHlemQVwS-EJ7RGg&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwi8n4vA8djTAhVHzoMKHT6xB8YQ6AEIVTAL#v=onepage&q=kalambo%20falls%20adze&f=false

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kalambo_Falls

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    18. Swimming is not a serious possibility for sea or even river crossing (definitely not in Africa, where every river has crocodiles). The risks are just too big and you cannot carry any stuff with you or almost, also what about pregnant women, young children? No, a bad idea. It's not like rafts or canoes are impervious to damage but they are much much safer and crucially allow for carrying provisions and babies, as well as whatever modest baggage hunter-gatherers may bring in their travels.

      I'll take a look at your links later on.

      Re. Sai, one of the interesting things about the site seems to be that it appears as "transitional" between older industries and the MSA and that may well be directly informative of early Homo sapiens formation, at least at the techno-cultural level. IMO, based on mtDNA and the fossil record (Omo 1 particularly), our species coalesced in that area of the Middle and Upper Nile, not necessarily in Sai but in the wider are between Lake Chad and the Red Sea and, probably, between the First Cataract and Lake Victoria. So it does make sense that a transitional site towards MSA is found in that area, and the fact that it is and was an island, makes it even more interesting, because it seems to imply that some sort of boating was also part of the techno-cultural package.

      "am not sure whether adzes have been found in that in particluar area."

      No adzes. AFAIK nothing like that exists until Mesolithic or Neolithic anywhere (a handaxe can however be used similarly, I guess). When I mentioned Sai, it was because of the reasons mentioned in the previous paragraph: very early riverine (island) habitation and transition towards early MSA.

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    19. "Swimming is not a serious possibility..." "...The risks are just too big and you cannot carry any stuff with you or almost, also what about pregnant women, young children?"

      Yes clearly swimming is implausible. Of course even professional swimmers (such as those who swim the English Channel) have trouble with such distances (I'm not sure how the the distances compare, but but it hardly matters. And in rivers there are crocodiles, in the ocean sharks.

      "...and the fact that it is and was an island, makes it even more interesting, because it seems to imply that some sort of boating was also part of the techno-cultural package. "

      That is very interesting. I had not thought of it

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  4. Edit: "...elsewhere in Africa, as well as other traits of "behavioral modernity"—or increasingly advanced/more advanced behavior.)..."

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  5. Log canoes and rafts (with various woods depending on time and region) have a very long history all over the world in places with no history at all of sago (sago comes from and is used in S.E Asia and Papua) or sago use (sago is not native to Africa and never used there). Skin coracles have not been known from Africa (to current knowledge) but their use there at some point is not impossible, and basketry coracles are a bit more widespread (skin ones are mostly—or only—known from Europe and the North American Plains native cultures), and found in S.E Asia and India (places somewhat closer to the "southern dispersal rout out of Africa) though also I believe not known in Africa. But dougouts have been much more common/widespread in the anthropological/ethnographic record from (indigenous and early cultures) in such regions(for instance) as Africa, Europe, Australia, the Americas, and Australia.

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    1. Please, ignore DDeden: he makes random absurd comments and was banned from commenting here long ago (his comments have been sent to the spam folder therefore). Not worth your time nor mine.

      Re. dugout canoes, some people have argued that they were very hard to make before adzes, which are a Meso-Neolithic development. I would not discard them anyhow but the raft is a much more convincing early development. What you say about basketry and coracles may also make some sense.

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    2. What is Maju hiding from his readers? The Basque coracle?

      "According to Lionel Casson, "Julius Caesar was the first to report seeing them there, and they are frequently mentioned by later writers. Other areas, too, found them of service, for they have also been reported in the Po Valley, along the north coast of Spain, in the Red Sea, on Lake Maeotis in the Crimea."

      http://indigenousboats.blogspot.com/2011/08/ancient-and-occasionally-huge-coracle.html

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      Delete this comment sil vous plait.

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