Varsche River 3, a new Middle Stone Age site in southern Namaqualand, South Africa.

  • Author: Teresa E. Steele, Alex Mackay, Jayson Orton & Steve Schwortz
  • Country: South Africa
  • Related Congress: 13th Congress, Dakar

To increase our understanding of behavioral variation surrounding modern human origins, we need to expand our database of well-documented Middle Stone Age (MSA) archaeological sites. Then we can investigate how MSA people responded to varying environmental circumstances; better define the spatial, temporal and environmental distributions of behavioral variations and innovations; and examine if these innovations may be related to changes in human demography. To this end, in July 2009 we explored the archaeological potential of the Knersvlakte of Namaqualand, South Africa, a previously archaeologically undocumented region 265km N of Cape Town. It samples from an understudied environment; it is situated just 100km north of Elands Bay and the Cederberg where numerous well-documented MSA sites occur, some of
which have evidence for early “modern” behavior; and the landscape preserves >30 open-air occurrences with techno-typological MSA artifacts, increasing the probability that some of the three rockshelters along the Varsche River potentially preserve MSA material. Varsche River (VR)-003 is collapsed rockshelter with a 28m long talus slope and deposits potentially extending 8m deep.

Two test-units yielded MSA stone artifacts, animal bones, ostrich eggshell, and limited worked pigments and mollusks. The upper levels contain disturbed surface material
and only very sparse Holocene remains. The youngest intact level yielded backed artifacts, an abundance of silcrete and small flakes, and high edgelength to mass ratios, consistent with a Howiesons Poort industry. This level also provided worked pigment and a few marine mollusks, although the coast is currently 45km distant. Levels below indicate pre-Howiesons Poortand other MSA industries, which contain an unusually high abundance of quartz (55-59%). Throughout, tortoises are the most abundant taxa among the moderately-preserved assemblage. Further excavations combined with surveys will provide more insights into how MSA people adapted to this unique environment.

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