While Neanderthals made their home on and adapted to the European and Asian continents, evidence of fossil humans in Africa show they were also adapting to their local environments. These populations in Africa exhibit many more similarities to modern humans than Neanderthals, as well as overall evolutionary success. While the African fossil sample size is smaller and more fragmentary than the number of Neanderthal specimens across Europe and Asia, the African sample is interesting in that it represents a longer time period and larger geographical area. This group of fossils, often represented under the name of “Middle Stone Age,” or MSA, dates to between 300,000 and 30,000 years ago across the entire continent of Africa. As with archaic Homo sapiens, there is much variability seen in this African set of fossils. There are also a few key consistent elements: none of them exhibit Neanderthal skeletal features; instead, they demonstrate features that are increasingly consistent with anatomically modern Homo sapiens.
Similarities to Neanderthals and MSA contemporaries in Africa are seen, however, in their behavioral adaptations, including stone tools and other cultural elements. The tools associated with the specimens living in Africa during this time period are, like their physical features, varied. In some parts of Africa, namely Northern Africa, stone tools from this time so closely resemble Neanderthal tools that they are classified as Mousterian. In sub-Saharan Africa, the stone tools associated with these specimens are labeled as Middle Stone Age, or MSA. Some scholars argue that these could also be a type of Mousterian tools, but they are still typically subdivided based on geographical location.
Recall that Mousterian tools were much more advanced than their Acheulean predecessors in terms of how the stone tools were manufactured, the quality of the stones used, and the ultimate use of the stone tools that were made. In addition, recent evidence suggests that MSA tools may also have been heat treated—to improve the quality of the stone tool produced. Evidence for heat treating is seen not only through advanced analysis of the tool itself but also through the residue of fires from this time period. Fire residues show a shift over time from small, short fires fueled by grasses (probably intended for cooking) to larger, more intensive fires that required the exploitation of dry wood, exactly the type of fire that would have been needed for heat treating stone tools.
Other cultural elements seen with specimens dating to the MSA include use of marine (sea-based) resources for their diet, manufacture of bone tools, use of adhesive and compound tools (e.g., hafted tools), shell bead production, engraving, use of pigments (such as ochre), and other more advanced tool-making technology (e.g., microlithics). While many of these cultural elements are also seen to a limited extent among Neanderthals, many of the developments at MSA sites are far more complex than what is demonstrated with Neanderthal sites. Several explanations have been posited to explain this expansion of cultural complexity. It has been suggested that MSA cultural expansion was a response to climate change. It has also been suggested that perhaps the MSA cultural expansion was due to an increased use of language, which triggered increased symbolic thought. Others have suggested that the cultural expansion of the MSA was due to the increase of marine resources in their diet, which included more fatty acids and may have aided their cognitive development. Still others have suggested that the increased cultural complexity was due to an increase in competition and interaction among groups, which spurred competition to innovate with increased cultural complexity. Recent studies suggest that perhaps the best explanation for the marked cultural complexity and diversity demonstrated by MSA cultural artifacts is best explained by the simple fact that they lived in diverse habitats. This would have necessitated a unique set of cultural adaptations for each habitat type (for example, specialized marine tools would have been needed along coastal sites but not at inland locations). Simply put, the most useful adaptation of MSA was their flexibility of behavior and adaptability to their local environment. As noted previously in this chapter, flexibility of behavior and physical traits, rather than specialization, seems to be a feature that was favored in hominin evolution at this time.