Southern Africa and Modern Human Origins

H. J. Deacon

Abstract

This paper argues that southern Africa was a remote part of the Old World in the late Pleistocene (125-10 ka ago). Because of this isolated position there was continuity without significant replacement in the resident population. Isolation and the relatively recent spread of agriculture to the region has allowed a section of this population to survive into the present. They are the Bushmen (San). Studies of geographic patterning in conventional genetic markers and mitochrondrial DNA indicate that the Bushman clade has a long evolutionary history in southern Africa. Estimates of more than 100 ka for the continued presence of this population in the region are supported in archaeological investigations of sites with long sequences such as Klasies River main site and Border Cave. Human remains dating to the earlier part of the late Pleistocene have been recovered from these sites and the samples form a morphological series with the Klasies River remains possibly 20 ka older than those from Border Cave. There is no fossil record for the later Pleistocene, however, at a period when selection for a gracile morphology may have been pronounced. The cultural associations in the earlier late Pleistocene are with the Middle Stone Age. Expressions of cultural `style' and the occurrence of similar artefact design types in the Middle and Later Stone Ages can be interpreted with reference to the ethnographic present. Temporal continuity can be shown in the geographical distribution of stylistic markers and this suggests participation in a shared cognitive system. The inference is that the people in the earlier late Pleistocene had cognitive abilities that are comparable to those shown by their Holocene and modern descendants. The presence of the ancestors of a modern population in the earlier late Pleistocene in this region is perhaps expected if modern people had their origins in Africa.

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