Beyond out of Africa: the North African Middle Stone Age as a window into human origins



Dr. Eleanor Scerri British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Oxford

Hypotheses invoking fossil and archaeological data from the North African Middle Stone Age (MSA) include a gradual, multiregional origin of our species within Africa, an intricate history of within and out of Africa dispersals and the demographically induced origins of complex culture (d’Errico et al., 2009; Gunz et al., 2012; Scally and Durbin, 2012; Harvati and Hublin, 2013; Scerri et al., 2014a, 2014b). However, the North African MSA itself remains poorly understood, despite the implications of these hypotheses.

There is a dearth of dated early MSA sites in North Africa, particularly in the Sahara. While more is know about the Last Interglacial (sensu lato, ~130-75ka), it is unknown whether industries such as the Aterian and the Nubian Complex reflect local developments or dispersals out of sub-Saharan Africa. In particular, recent studies have indicated that North African MSA industrial nomenclatures may in fact be obfuscating finer scale patterns of regional similarities and differences (e.g. Dibble et al. 2013; Scerri, 2013a; Scerri et al., 2014a), and question the validity of statements linking such broad technological entities with poorly defined dispersals. In the final MSA, population contraction and change is linked to later dispersals that are considered to have had a greater impact on contemporary human ancestry. Understanding these key processes in the early, mid and late North African MSA is crucial for understanding how hominins survived at the edges of habitable zones and opportunistically colonised empty environments, leading to population interactions, turnovers and dispersals. This paper therefore reviews, synthesises and integrates archaeological, fossil and environmental evidence from the North African MSA, and critically considers their combined implications for the region’s role in modern human origins and dispersals. The results call into question the significance and utility of the MSA/MP terminological divide and provide new insights on key evolutionary hypotheses.


Dibble, H. L., Aldeias, V., Jacobs, Z., Olszewski, D. I., Rezek, Z., Lin, S. C., Alvarez-Fernández, E., Barshay-Szmidt, C. C., Hallett-Desguez, E., Reed, D., Reed, K., Richter, D., Steele, T. E., Skinner, A., Blackwell, B., Doronicheva, E. and El-Hajraoui, M. 2013. On the industrial attributions of the Aterian and Mousterian of the Maghreb. Journal of Human Evolution 64, 194-210.

d’Errico, F., Vanhaeren, M., Barton, N., Bouzouggar, A., Mienis, H., Richter, D., Hublin, J. J., McPherron S. and Lozouet P. 2009. Additional Evidence on the use of Personal Ornaments in the Middle Palaeolithic of North Africa. PNAS 106, 16051-16056.

Gunz, P, Bookstein, F. L, Mitteroecker, P, Stadlmayr, A, Seidler, H, and Weber, G. W. 2009. Early modern human diversity suggests subdivided population structure and a complex out-of-Africa scenario. PNAS, 106, 6094-6098.

Harvati, K. and Hublin, J-J. 2012. Morphological continuity of the face in the late Middle and Upper Pleistocene hominins from northwestern Africa – A 3D geometric morphometric analysis. In J.-J. Hublin and S. McPherron (eds.), Modern Origins: A North African Perspective. Springer: Dordrecht

Scally, A. and Durbin, R. 2012. Revising the human mutation rate: implications for understanding human evolution. Nature Reviews Genetics 13, 745-753.

Scerri, E.M.L. 2013a. The Aterian and its place in the North African Middle Stone Age. Quaternary International 300, 111-130.

Scerri, E. M. L., Drake, N., Jennings, R., Groucutt, H. S. 2014a. Earliest Evidence for the Structure of Homo sapiens Populations in Africa. Quaternary Science Reviews 101, 207-216

Scerri E. M. L., Groucutt H. S., Jennings, R., Petraglia, M. D. 2014b. Unexpected technological heterogeneity in northern Arabia indicates complex Late Pleistocene demography at the gateway to Asia. Journal of Human Evolution 75, 125-142.

Event Information:

Date, Time: 19/01/2015, 17:30 h – 19:00 h

Location: Room S22, Seminargebäude (Building 106), Universitätsstraße 37 , Cologne