Climate, Environment and Early Human Innovation: Stable Isotope and Faunal Proxy Evidence from Archaeological Sites (98-59ka) in the Southern Cape, South Africa
The Middle Stone Age (MSA) of southern Africa, and in particular its Still Bay and Howiesons Poort lithic traditions, represents a period of dramatic subsistence, cultural, and technological innovation by our species, Homo sapiens. Climate change has frequently been postulated as a primary driver of the appearance of these innovative behaviours, with researchers invoking either climate instability as a reason for the development of buffering mechanisms, or environmentally stable refugia as providing a stable setting for experimentation. Testing these alternative models has proved intractable, however, as existing regional palaeoclimatic and palaeoenvironmental records remain spatially, stratigraphically, and chronologically disconnected from the archaeological record. Here we report high-resolution records of environmental shifts based on stable carbon and oxygen isotopes in ostrich eggshell (OES) fragments, faunal remains, and shellfish assemblages excavated from two key MSA archaeological sequences, Blombos Cave and Klipdrift Shelter. We compare these records with archaeological material remains in the same strata. The results from both sites, spanning the periods 98–73 ka and 72–59 ka, respectively, show significant changes in vegetation, aridity, rainfall seasonality, and sea temperature in the vicinity of the sites during periods of human occupation. While these changes clearly influenced human subsistence strategies, we find that the remarkable cultural and technological innovations seen in the sites cannot be linked directly to climate shifts. Our results demonstrate the need for scale-appropriate, on-site testing of behavioural-environmental links, rather than broader, regional comparisons.