Physical Anthropology

An Overview of Prehistoric Africa

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"An Overview of Prehistoric Africa"
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Over the last century, Africa, particularly east Africa in the Great Rift Valley, has become a treasure trove for archaeologists and paleontologists seeking evidence of pre-historic life, in particular pre-historic man. However, in the late 20th century and early 21st century, Niger in the Sahara desert and South Africa have been unveiling more secrets about pre-historic times. Studies of pre-historic Africa have resulted in claims that the earliest true human being, a hunter-gatherer who banded with others to form nomadic groups, ("homo sapiens"), came from Africa more than 200,000 years ago.

The Great Rift Valley attracts history seekers because this is where two of the earth's tectonic plates are moving apart, exposing fossil remains. The Great Rift Valley covers 8,700 kilometres from the Jordan Valley in the Middle East, through Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique to the Indian Ocean at Beira. It contains seven lakes all of which have no outlets. This is where many scientists believe human life began, spreading to other parts of the world. Louis Leakey and his wife Mary secured many discoveries here in the 1950's and 1960's. Of particular note, they found "homo habilis", the oldest known primate who, like humans, walked upright. Other fossil finds here, covering thousands of years, indicate the area was a favoured habitation area for humans in pre-historic Africa.

However, the Great Rift Valley is also a "mecca" for evidence of pre-historic animals. In the Kenya part of the Great Rift Valley is the Sibiloi National Park. Finds here include a 3 million year old giant tortoise shell. A set of 5 foot jaws from a crocodile (possibly 45 feet long), and the extinct Behemoth, (related to the elephant), are both dated about 1.5 million years old.

Not all major pre-historic finds have been isolated to the Great Rift Valley area. Discoveries in the Sudan and Niger suggest pre-historic Africa enjoyed a well-watered climate, suitable for crop growing.

The Sudan was an ancient agricultural area as early as 17,000B.C. Featured crops were barley and sorghum.

Niger, further west, was a heavily forested area. It was here that paleontologist Paul Sereno, between 1997 and 2000, uncovered more complete skeletons of the giant crocodile found in the Great Rift Valley. This animal had the appearance of the modern crocodile but is not related. It was now clear the animal would have weighed about 8 ton, double the weight of an elephant, lasted 50-60 years and had more than 100 bone-crushing teeth. In short, it could drag down any dinosaur. Sereno also discovered a two-legged fish-eating predator, measuring 36 feet long and 12 feet high at the hips. His "aquatic" finds, in what is now desert, seem to reinforce that pre-historic Africa attracted regular rainfall and had more widespread vegetation than today.

There is evidence right across Africa that the zebu or hump backed cattle were domesticated as herds. In fact, there were centres, particularly in the Sudan, for cattle worship.

In South Africa, the complete skeleton of an animal, extinct 250 million years ago, has been found. Commonly known as a "gorgon", a ferocious predator with both reptilian and mammalian characteristics, paleontologists from the South African Museum and the University of Washington found it in December 1998. They were the largest predators, just before the dinosaurs and grew to about 1ofeet in length.

Rock art has been found in both north and south Africa, generally dating 25 to 10,000B.C. But there could be more dated earlier. In Tanzania, rock art dates back about 50,000 years. In Namibia, on the west coast, painted and engraved images of animals on stone slabs have been excavated and dated to 28,000 years ago. In Blombos Cave, east of Cape Town, art has been found dating back about 70,000 years. This could be the earliest art ever found.

Pre-historic Africa seems to have been a "busy" area of nomadic, herding or crop growing, artistic "humans" and megafauna. It has a range of "first" claims. Perhaps, as some experts believe, here indeed could have been the "cradle of civilization".


More about this author: Gemma Wiseman

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