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Several areas adjacent to the Blyde and Olifants Rivers have yielded evidence of early hominid occupation.

Artefacts in the form of quartzite stone tool fragments have been found in weathered alluvial deposits and gravel beds dating back some 300,000 years.

Further evidence suggests that simple very early stone age bi-face hand axes were in use in the region, alongside cores and cleaves dating to up to a million years ago.

These may represent the work of Homo erectus and Homo habilis of the Early Achulean Culture, or possible even be from mankind's Australopithecine origins.

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Stone Age   

1.5 to 1 million years ago

The southern part of the Kruger Park has been home and hunting-ground for mankind and his predecessors for in excess of a million years.

Archaeological evidence found along the ancient river terraces of the Lower Olifants River reveals simple, unspecialised stone tools. Current thinking doubts that Homo australopithecines was a tool-maker, and these are almost certainly the product of Homo habilis.

Known as pebble tools, they are the size of a human fist, oval in shape, with some flakes chipped off one side or an end. They were probably used as choppers, specifically to break open bones to expose the marrow for food. The opposite end of the primitive "blade" was left rounded to cup in the hand. Their relative scarcity in the area may also be construed as indicating their use as secondary tools - by-products of the manufacture of the cutting blades sheared off the pebbles. Such cutting blades would have been far more useful in penetrating the thick hide of animals to gain access to the flesh, organs and bowels.

In the period between a million and a half and a million years ago, Homo erectus made his appearance. He was physically larger than habilis and had a larger brain cavity.

Extensive Hominid occurrence indicated by the artifacts found in region

Australopithecines, the probable genetic ancestor of both of these species became extinct during the same period. These transformations took hundreds of thousands of years and one can assume that, for an extended time, all three species roamed the Lowveld in search of and in competition for food.

Early Stone Age

The period between three million and one hundred and fifty thousand years ago saw great changes in man made tools. Homo erectus evolved rapidly during this period, measured both by an expansion in his brain capacity and a proportionate increase in the sophistication of his armoury.

Hand axes with a cutting effect similar to a saw became the tools of choice. The early hand axes were cobbles with a number of longer flakes removed from one end and terminating in a sharp point; the number of flakes removed determined the amount of serration on the blade.

Earlier tools show less serration than later ones, and were often only worked on one side of the pebble leaving the opposing surface untouched. By the end of the period the whole edges of the tools were routinely worked to give a longer and sharper edge.

Indeed some were so thoroughly worked that it is difficult to explain how they were comfortably held in the hand. The last hand axes and cleavers of this period have a beautiful outline and symmetry with a very delicate cutting edge. They are remarkably thin in cross section, and there is evidence of specialisation in blade design for differing purposes.

Middle Stone Age

This period, from 150,000 to 30,000 years ago, is associated with the emergence of early Homo sapiens and his "modern" successor. A much wider variety of flake-based tools evolved over this period, evidencing a range of specialised manufacturing techniques and uses. The tendency was for tools to become much smaller and triangular in shape, with longer cutting surfaces.

Spears with a stone tipped point and axes entered the hunters' armoury. By extending the length of his weapon, he became able to tackle game from a safer distance. The handle extending the instrument also gave him a greater turning motion, and delivered much greater force at the end with which to kill and injure.

Quartzite was used in the Central Lowveld for these tools due to the relative absence of finely grained rocks in the region. The coarse nature of this material means that there are few fine examples of flake tools in the local archaeological record. A revolutionary new technique of the Middle Stone Age produced long, facetted flakes. The top end of a stone was removed with a single blow leaving a flat "platform". Removal of the rounded surface enabled the toolmaker to far more easily remove flakes by chipping down onto the platform at right angles. The tool would be turned through a small angle between each downwards strike, yielding a series of cutting flakes until the underlying core became too small to work further. This represented a far more controlled and efficient method of manufacture, enabling large number of similarly sized flakes to be produced at the same time.

Late Stone Age

The region's lack of suitable fine-grained material means that the tool-making history of the period more recent than 30,000 years ago is not well represented in the Central Lowveld. Elsewhere in Southern Africa, the San and the Kho-Khoin people further refined tool-making using deposits of chalcedony in its various forms (chert) and obsidian. Even where these deposits do occur locally they were often unusable due to veins of other rock intruding through them.

These cultures invented, amongst other things, the bow along with a series of different types of wooden and stone tipped arrows and venoms to overcome the relatively weak projecting power of these weapons. They also significantly enhanced the digging stick by adding weight to it, ultimately by mounting a stone on the far end of the shaft which had had a hole drilled through its centre to enable it to be fixed on. This hole drilling technology offers an insight into local cultural history as the region approached the transition to the Metal Age. Much larger, perforated stones, often made from soapstone, are found in an area consistent with Sotho speakers.

Bored stones found at Phalaborwa. Evidence of transitional sequence from San to Iron Age people
Foskor Museum, Phalaborwa

The Sotho population was made up of layers of immigrants into the region, with each new layer establishing themselves as rulers over the old one(s). The first groups of immigrants incorporated Khoi-San women into their society, and a smaller, darker stockier people, both of whom had the technology to produce medium sized bored stones and were users of these modified digging sticks.

The descendants of both tribes subsumed into the Sotho can be found in remote parts of the mountain range. These early San inhabitants were cave dwellers who also built primitive shelters. They used their digging sticks to excavate edible roots and tubers, and also to bury the dead, a tradition that started in the stone age. In the late stone age, the technologies developed were used to equip the dead with tools for the afterlife. They would often ceremonially embellish these tools to ensure that the spirit had good memories of life.

San paintings in the Renosterkoppies south of Skukuza possibly dating 3000 years depicting either Roan or Sable
Source: "Neem Uit die Verlede"; M English; SANparks Press, 1990

There are spectacular rock paintings attributed to these immigrants including some that may be visited on the Bushman Trail in the Kruger National Park.