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Kathu Pan (South Africa) - Middle Paleolithic Tool Use

Middle Paleolithic Spear Point Use


Retouched Point from Kathu Pan 1

~500,000-year-old retouched point from Kathu Pan 1. The scale bar is 1 cm long

Image courtesy of Jayne Wilkins
Retouched Point from Kathu Pan 1

A ~500,000-year-old retouched point from Kathu Pan 1. The scale bar is 1 cm long

Image courtesy Jayne Wilkins

Kathu Pan (KP1) is an in-filled sinkhole located in the Northern Cape Province of South Africa, one of eleven localities excavated between 1978 and 1990 by Peter Beaumont. The "pan" in the name refers to a geological formation, a shallow depression with an internal drainage and a high water table, and in this case covers an area of about .3 square kilometer (.1 square mile). KP1 formed within Cenozoic era calcretes, and its sequence includes human occupations dated from Early through Later Stone Age, with important Acheulean and Fauresmith industries.

Chronology of Kathu Pan

  • Stratum 1, 1.5-2 m, Later Stone Age, >10,000 years BP
  • Stratum 2, 1.8 m, Later Stone Age, 16,500-10,000 years BP (OSL)
  • Stratum 3, .8 m, Middle Stone Age, 291,000 years ago (OSL)
  • Stratum 4, 1-4 m, Middle Stone Age, Fauresmith, 542,000-464,000 years ago (OSL, UTh)
  • Stratum 5, 3.5 m, Acheulean, 2.85 million years ago (faunal)

Fauresmith Industry at Kathu Pan

The Fauresmith Industry is what scholars have named the co-occurrence of Levallois points and handaxes with prepared cores, blades and side scrapers, all at about 500,000 years ago. Fauresmith has a controversial standing in the paleontological community, because typically blades do not occur until 200,000 years later than handaxes: this situation at Wonderwerk cave and other locations has been attributed to mixing of unrelated cultural strata. However, the lithic assemblage at KP1 does not appear to be mixed: Stratum 3 has strikingly different sediments than does Stratum 4, and while Stratum 3 artifacts are water rolled, Stratum 4 are not.

Lithic artifacts in Strata 3 and 4 include a total weight of 2,000 kilograms, over 6,000 of which came from Stratum 4a. Because of its Fauresmith designation, Stratum 4a has received the most analysis. Raw materials from Stratum 4a are predominantly banded ironstone, locally available in nearby riverbeds. Other less important sources include black cherts, quartzites, quartz and obsidians, from quarries some 20 kilometers (12 miles) from the site, or, more likely, found in nearby riverbeds.

The lithic blade production of the Fauresmith industries at KP1 are Levallois in character, a strategy known outside of Fauresmith sites no earlier than 250,000 years ago. Blades and blade fragments make up over 16% of the stone tools: the average length of complete blades is approximately 70 millimeters (2.75 inches) in length, but range from 15-150 mm (.5-5 in). Retouched pieces include unifacially worked pointed forms, made on flake and blade blanks.

Cores were extensively prepared for blade removal; discarded blade cores have a distinctive shape and form, indicating that platforms were intensively prepared before blade detachment.

Fauresmith Compared

Assemblages similar to the Fauresmith industry at KP1 include the Amudian industry at Qesem Cave in Israel (~420-200,000 years ago), and the Kapthurin Formation in Kenya (550,000-500,000 years ago): such distances in space are difficult to reconcile. Technological differences do exist between the three sites, in terms of raw material used for blade production, although the raw material used were forged from local quarries.

The intensity of blade production, the method used by by all three groups and the end product of the stone working (blades and pointed flakes) have similarities, suggesting that Middle Paleolithic hominin groups in Africa and the Levant were inventing new strategies to cope with their environments, and independently developed at the geographically distant localities.

Hafted Points at Kathu Pan?

In 2012, researcher Jayne Wilkins and colleagues published results of their studies on KP1 assemblages in Science, investigating experimental and metric data suggesting that the retouched stone points identified in the Fauresmith assemblages had been hafted, and acted as spear tips. If true, and there are yet questions concerning the context, this would place stone tool hafting to 200,000 years earlier than that seen at other Middle Paleolithic sites inside or outside of Africa.

Wilkins and colleagues examined 210 unifacially retouched points and point fragments from Strata 4a and noted fractured tips, bases or lateral edges, all of which are diagnostic of impact fractures. About 13% of those also showed modification of the points near their bases, which the scholars interpreted as hafting preparation.

Although this seems startling, evidence suggesting spear point use is rare but not completely unknown, at Boxgrove in the UK, where a perforated horse scapula was recovered ca 500,000 years ago; and potentially Gesher Benot Ya'kov in Israel, where repeated butchering of fallow deer carcases at 750,000 years ago suggests some significantly structured hunting techniques.

Additional investigations will no doubt continue to accrue more data concerning the Fauresmith industry, and KP1 itself.


This glossary entry is a part of the About.com guide to the Middle Stone Age, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Lombard M. 2012. Thinking through the Middle Stone Age of sub-Saharan Africa. Quaternary International 270(0):140-155.

Porat N, Chazan M, Grün R, Aubert M, Eisenmann V, and Horwitz LK. 2010. New radiometric ages for the Fauresmith industry from Kathu Pan, southern Africa: Implications for the Earlier to Middle Stone Age transition. Journal of Archaeological Science 37(2):269-283.

Scott L. 1993. Palynological evidence for late quaternary warming episodes in Southern Africa. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 101(3–4):229-235.

Tryon CA, and McBrearty S. 2002. Tephrostratigraphy and the Acheulian to Middle Stone Age transition in the Kapthurin Formation, Kenya. Journal of Human Evolution 42(1-2):211-235.\

Walker SJH, Lukich V, and Chazan M. 2014. Kathu Townlands: A High Density Earlier Stone Age Locality in the Interior of South Africa. PLoS ONE 9(7):e103436.

Wilkins J, and Chazan M. 2012. Blade production ~500 thousand years ago at Kathu Pan 1, South Africa: support for a multiple origins hypothesis for early Middle Pleistocene blade technologies. Journal of Archaeological Science 39(6):1883-1900.

Wilkins J, Schoville BJ, Brown KS, and Chazan M. 2012. Evidence for early hafted hunting technology. Science 338:942-946.

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