In southern Africa, Middle Stone Age sites with long sequences have been the
focus of intense international and interdisciplinary research over the past
decade (cf. Wadley 2015). Two
techno-complexes of the Middle Stone Age—the Still Bay and Howiesons Poort—have
been associated with many technological and behavioural innovations of
Homo sapiens. The classic model argues that these two
techno-complexes are temporally separated ‘horizons’ with homogenous material
culture (Jacobs et al.
2008), reflecting demographic pulses
and supporting large subcontinental networks. This model was developed on the
basis of evidence from southern African sites regarded as centres of
Southern Namibia forms the north-westernmost margin of the geographic
distribution of Still Bay and Howiesons Poort techno-complexes (Figure 1). This region therefore provides
an opportunity to investigate the distribution, persistence and loss of Middle
Stone Age technological innovations and adaptive capacities from a peripheral
perspective. Approaching this question requires a detailed knowledge of the
formation of the archaeological record, its chronological profile,
techno-economic characteristics and its relation to changing regional climatic
and environmental conditions. This article reports on an interdisciplinary
project implemented to generate such data. It applies archaeological and
geoarchaeological methods to examine the site at the Pockenbank Rockshelter and
its wider geographic setting.
Figure 1. Left: distribution of sites with documented Still Bay and Howiesons
Poort techno-complexes. Right: location of Pockenbank Rockshelter and
Apollo 11 Rockshelter (source: www.geog.ucsb.edu, www.esa.int).
The site is located at the interface between the southern Namib Desert and the
Great Escarpment (Figure 1). The
immediate area is characterised by narrow valleys and gorges of dry river beds,
oriented from east to west, episodically draining into shallow basins
(vleis) of the Namib.
The spacious shelter opens to the north. The Middle Stone Age deposits were
discovered during a test-pit excavation in 1969 (Wendt 1972), and the results subsequently published (Vogelsang
1998). A similarly extensive
stratigraphic sequence is known only from the Apollo 11 site, located 80km to
the south (Vogelsang et al.
Between the original work at the Pockenbank Rockshelter and our own work in
2015, unauthorised excavations were conducted leading to considerable damage to
in situ material as well as to the 1969 test pit (Figure 2). The 2015 field season
therefore started by documenting the extent of the damage, before cleaning the
upper part of the former profile and excavating an area of 0.5m2
(Figure 3). Natural layers were
followed, and features, single finds and sampled materials were piece-plotted.
The lower part of the sequence down to bedrock was intact, and samples were
taken during profile cleaning.
Figure 2. Left: damage of the old ‘A’-trench by unauthorised excavations. Right:
view of the shelter during excavation in 2015.
Figure 3. Restored upper part of the Pockenbank Rockshelter profile. Excavated
area outlined by dashed lines. Location of column sampled for
sedimentological and geochemical analysis highlighted in yellow.
The sequence comprises a succession of seven major units, with clear
differences in the colour, texture and composition of the sediments. Intensive
anthropogenic activity is documented in the upper part of the sequence (Figure 3), with multi-layered hearths and
artefacts, animal bones and ostrich eggshells. Bioturbation (especially insect
burrowing) and geogenic post-depositional alterations (precipitation of
secondary carbonate and gypsum) of the sediments were observed throughout the
sequence, but especially in the lower part.
As the Holocene deposits were removed in 1969, the exposed sequence starts with
Early Later Stone Age material of the Late Pleistocene (cf. Ossendorf 2013). The remaining units contain
unambiguously Middle Stone Age material. First results from the lower units
indicate an age beyond the range of radiocarbon dating.
Pockenbank is one of only a few Middle Stone Age sites in Namibia that is
systematically sampled for archaeobotanical remains; charcoal is well
preserved, although no pollen has been identified. A sequence of samples for
sedimentological, geochemical and micromorphological analysis has been taken
(Figure 4). These samples will shed
light on the formation of the archaeological record (Hensel 2016). Samples for isotope analysis and
dating (radiocarbon, OSL) have been taken from parts of the profile with fewer
signs of bioturbation. The results will be tested against occupation events
identified at other sites and will be used to establish a regional age model.
Figure 4. Collecting of samples for micromorphological analysis.
The lithic artefacts recovered during excavation are made of quartzite, quartz
and cryptocrystalline silicates (Figure
5). Additionally, artefacts made of organic material have been
documented. A few fragments of marine shells were found in the Middle Stone Age
unit. Studies on raw material proveniences as well as a technological analysis
of the lithic assemblage will shed light on the settlement dynamics of Late
Pleistocene foragers. Initial raw material surveys show that the frequently
used quartzite varieties were not available locally. It seems plausible that
observed changes in raw materials were related to developments in land use as
well as the provisioning strategies of hunter-gatherers at the margin of the
Figure 5. Selection of lithic artefacts made of quartzite and cryptocrystalline
silicates: the main raw materials used at Pockenbank.
The archaeological sequence at Pockenbank Rockshelter encompasses critical
phases in the evolution of anatomically modern humans in southern Africa. By
shifting attention from local centres of innovation to peripheral regions of
subcontinental networks, the site has the potential to contribute to a new
theoretical perspective on the study of behavioural and technological
innovations. Preliminary results indicate that the sequence possesses many of
the prerequisites needed to address such research questions successfully.
Besides the identification and contextualisation of internal techno-economic
changes, the vicinity to the Apollo 11 site also allows for the investigation
of inter-assemblage variability on a regional scale. The examination of
changing behaviour and adaptation of humans at the junction between different
habitats in hyper-arid to semi-arid environments will broaden our view on human
lifeways and Middle Stone Age occupation history during the Late Pleistocene in
The project is financed by a postdoctoral research grant from the University of
Cologne (2014–2017), awarded to I. Schmidt. We thank the National Museum of
Namibia for hosting material and research, the National Heritage Council of
Namibia for supporting the project, and the African Research Unit (University
of Cologne) for providing research facilities. Thanks to Melli and Mette
Gessert, Helmut Paffrath and Helga Goodwin for their great support during
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