Howiesons Poort (also called HP) is a lithic technology cultural period in the Middle Stone Age in Africa named after the Howieson's Poort Shelter archeological site near Grahamstown in South Africa.[1] It seems to have lasted around 5,000 years between roughly 65,800 BP and 59,500 BP (Jacobs 2008).[2]

Humans of this period as in the earlier Stillbay cultural period showed signs of having used symbolism[3] and having engaged in the cultural exchange of gifts.[4]

Howiesons Poort culture is characterized by tools that seemingly anticipate many of the characteristics, 'Running ahead of time',[5] of those found in the Upper Palaeolithic period that started 25,000 years later around 40,000 BP. Howiesons Poort culture has been described as "both 'modern' and 'non-modern'".[6]


Modern research using optically stimulated luminescence dating has pushed back the date of its remains and it is now estimated to have started 64.8 ka and ended 59.5 ka with a duration of 5.3 ka.[2] This date matches the oxygen isotope stage OIS4 which was a period aridity and sea level lowering in southern Africa.[7]

In the South African Middle Stone Age sequence culture it occurs following a gap of 7 ka after the Stillbay period.[2] While the culture mainly occurs in various sites around South Africa, it is also present in Namibia and Zimbabwe.

Artifacts from it were first described in 1927 by Rev. P. Stapleton, a Jesuit schoolteacher at St Aidan's College and John Hewitt a zoologist and the director of the local Albany museum.[8][9] The period name was given to their finds by AJH Goodwin and Clarence van Riet Lowe in 1929.[10] After this and until the mid-1970s, Howieson’s Poort industry was taken to be a variety of Magosian and so intermediate in time and technology between the Middle Stone Age and Late Stone Age.


Howiesons Poort is associated with various archaeological artifacts. The most notable come from composite weapons. These were made from "geometric backed" blades that were hafted together with heated ochre and gum compound glue.[11] These blades are sometimes called segments, crescents, lunates or microliths are the type fossils for identifying a technology as Howiesons Poort. Blades from the Howiesons Poort assemblages were produced by soft hammer percussion on marginal platforms and the backed tools of this industry subsequently fashioned from these flakes.[12] Organic residues preserved on the tips of these stone tools show not only that they were hafted but also that they were used as hunting weapons.[13] Sarah Wurz's study shows that the general assemblage, frequency of retouch pieces, and the variability in formal tool morphologies still need to be looked into further. Meanwhile, Harper's study at Rose Cottage contain a confusion concerning the backed pieces and laterally crested blades[6]

From this period at Sibudu Cave the earliest bone arrow and needle come has been excavated.[14] The presence of a high percentage of the small antelope small blue duiker remains have been suggested as evidence of the use of traps.[15]

Fine-grained stone such as silcrete and quartz make up a large percentage of Howiesons Poort artifacts than in both earlier and later Middle Stone Age cultures.[4] Howiesons Poort tools seem not to differ greatly in shape from those of the Late Stone Age lithic tools such as those manufactured by Wilton culture though they tend to be larger but somewhat smaller than the typical flake and blade tools elsewhere in the Middle Stone Age.[4] They have indeed been described as 'fully "Upper Palaeolithic" in almost every recognized technological and typological sense'.[5] The Howiesons Poort Industry is anomalous not only for its early appearance, which Vishnyatsky[5] calls 'running ahead of time', but because it is replaced by Middle Stone Age industries that are similar to those of pre-Howiesons Poort. This change seems to have happened gradually.[6]


Like the earlier Stillbay industry, the Howiesons Poort culture produced symbolic artifacts such as engraved ochre, ostrich eggshells and shell beads.[3] There is a particularly abundant and diverse use of ochre as a pigment and this has been interpreted as reflecting an increasingly complex symbolic culture.[3]

It has been noted that "Not only was ochre collected and returned to the site but there is evidence in the ochre 'pencils' with ground facets that it was powdered for use. Ochre may have had many uses but the possibility that it was used as a body paint, and therefore had served a symbolic purpose"[16]


Howiesons Poort culture did not survive and this has raised questions as to why. For example, Lyn Wadley has noted that "if the Howiesons Poort backed blade production was an important marker of modern human behaviour it is difficult to explain why it should have lasted for more than 20,000 years and then have been replaced by 'pre-modern' technology?" [17]p. 203

It has been suggested that backed blades played a role in gift exchanges of hunting equipment, and this ceased with culture changes that stopped this exchange and so the need for their manufacture. This idea is supported by evidence that the long-distance transport of non-local raw materials (which such gift culture would have encouraged) is reduced after the Howiesons Poort period.[4][18]

While the end of this culture might be due to climate change this seems unlikely since its disappearance does not link to any identifiable climatic event.[2]

Although the Howiesons Poort occurred during a period of climatic warming, this was also the case for the late and final MSA occupations at Sibudu. The Stillbay and post-Howiesons Poort periods cannot be reliably associated with either warm or cool intervals. Accordingly, we cannot identify any particular climatic attribute that is consistently and uniquely associated with any MSA industry the Stillbay coincided (within error) with the Toba volcanic super-eruption and with the end of megadroughts in tropical Africa, whereas the Howiesons Poort is not associated with any such known events. Environmental factors may have been responsible for episodic occupation and abandonment of rock shelters, but they were not necessarily the driving force behind technological change. …
The cause of these two bursts of technological innovation, closely spaced yet separated in time, remains an enigma, as does the reason for their disappearance. But, intriguingly, both fall within the genetic bottleneck that occurred 80 to 60 ka and the subsequent expansions of modern human populations within and out of Africa.
Zenobia Jacobs and colleagues Science 2008[2]


Howiesons Poort sites (CC BY-SA 4.0 ROCEEH)



The chain of operations followed in the making of the Howiesons Poort backed artefacts goes beyond that necessary for purely functional tasks.
Sarah Wurz South African Archaeological Bulletin 1999[16]

The Upper Palaeolithic illustrates intensification in the use of symbols that may be associated with crowding or density dependent behaviour. … The Upper Palaeolithic was not a global stage and no equivalent of the Upper Palaeolithic has been recorded in sub-Saharan Africa or other regions outside the Upper Palaeolithic spread. In such regions, the emergence of symbolic behaviour would be indicated in different context specific markers. The importance of the evidence of the Howiesons Poort is that symbolic behaviour can be recognised in an African context at a significantly earlier time. Then, as now, symbolic communication was an essential in daily life.
Sarah Wurz South African Archaeological Bulletin 1999[16]

Relationship to the Late Stone Age

The Howiesons Poort was a very original and innovative industry; but it did not persist and did not give rise to the LSA. In a sense it was both modern and non-modern. This is why it is interesting.
Sylvain Soriano, Paola Villa, Lyn Wadley Journal of Archaeological Science 2007[6]p. 700

The Howiesons Poort can no longer be seen as the product of 'Neo-anthropic influences' emanating out of Europe but it would be equally mistaken to see the Howiesons Poort as precociously anticipating the Upper Palaeolithic.
Sarah Wurz South African Archaeological Bulletin 1999[16]

The exploitation of animal bones, antlers and ivory as raw materials for the production of mundane or ritual tools as well as for art objects became a common practice in the Upper Paleolithic, although these raw materials were available to Middle Paleolithic humans. … The exception is the rich assemblages of the Howiesons Poort entity in South Africa, and in particular in Bloombos cave, generally dated to 80–60,000 years ago. For the time being this cultural phenomenon is unique, isolated, stratigraphically and chronologically intercalated between two Middle Stone Age industries lacking bone tools. One may hypothesize that the makers of this culture did not survive to a later age and thus their innovative venture had no relationship to the appearance of similar bone and antler tools, beads and pendants in Eurasia.[20]

Palaeolithic people could foresee their technological future no more, or even less, than we are able to. They never said, 'The Middle Palaeolithic has gone on quite long enough – now we'd better get on with a transition to the Upper.' So what is one to make of those precocious lithic industries which prefigure key features of later innovations, the industries which 'run ahead' of their own time?
LB Vishnyatsky Antiquity 1994[5]


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