MPI-SHH Project Members

Key External Project Partners

  • Christopher Henshilwood (University of Bergen/University of the Witwatersrand)
  • Karen van Niekerk (University of Bergen/University of the Witwatersrand)
  • Simon Armitage (Royal Holloway University, London)
  • Julia Lee-Thorp (University of Oxford)
  • Peter Mitchell (University of Oxford)

Project Funding

This project is funded by the Max Planck Society and the European Research Council.


This project is grateful for the support of the South African Heritage Resources Agency and the Iziko Museums, South Africa.

Climate and Culture in South Africa

South Africa has one of the longest and most-studied archaeological records of human technological, cultural, and subsistence. In this project we seek to understand the role of climate and environmental in shaping human adaptations and innovations in this part of the world.
View from Blombos Cave
View from Blombos Cave

The environments of South Africa have been long thought to have had a considerable impact on the cultural, technological, and subsistence behaviours of our species. On the southern Cape coast of South Africa, evidence for heat-treated stone tool technologies, personal ornamentation, symbolism, and complex subsistence strategies occurs from c. 100 ka. It has been argued that climatic variability forced humans to innovate such behaviours in order to adapt to changing environments and food sources. By contrast, it has also been suggested that climatic and environmental stability in refugia in this region facilitated experimentation. Either way, climate-induced variation in terrestrial and marine environments, clearly exploited by humans in this region, likely had major impacts on behaviour.                                                                                                                               

Map of Lesotho with the sites of Ha Makotoko and Ntloana Tsana sampled by Roberts et al. 2013 Zoom Image
Map of Lesotho with the sites of Ha Makotoko and Ntloana Tsana sampled by Roberts et al. 2013

In the highlands of Lesotho, temperature controls the terrestrial resources available to humans, as well as the possibility of habitation. A rich history of archaeological research in the region provides a record of changing technological strategies, varying subsistence reliance on large game and freshwater fish resources, and changing occupation intensity through time. This region was most likely vulnerable to fluctuations in temperature during the Last Glacial Maximum and across the Terminal Pleistocene/Holocene transition that, in turn, likely played a part in the technological, cultural, and subsistence structure o the archaeological record in this region.

View of the Klipdrift Cave complex Zoom Image
View of the Klipdrift Cave complex

Teasing apart hypotheses relating climate change to human behaviour in this part of South Africa has been hindered by a general lack of high-resolution, ‘on-site’ records of immediate relevance to terrestrial and marine environments exploited by human populations. In this project we seek to develop well-dated, multi-proxy sequences, directly associated with records of human behaviour, in order to test the relevance of climate change to pulses of human innovation, and changes in technological and subsistence adaptations, in this part of the world. The unparalleled length of documented human presence in this region, as well as its long history of archaeological research, make it an ideal context to test new palaeoenvironmental proxies and approaches.

Related Publications

Roberts, P., Henshilwood, C.S., van Niekerk, K.L., Keene, P., Gledhill, A., Reynard, J., Badenhorst, S.,  & J. Lee-Thorp. 2016. Climate, environment and early human innovation: stable isotope and faunal proxy evidence from archaeological sites (98-59ka) in the southern Cape, South Africa. PLOS ONE: doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0157408

Roberts, P., Lee-Thorp, J.A., Mitchell, P.J., & C. Arthur. 2013. Stable carbon isotopic evidence for climate change across the late Pleistocene to early Holocene from Lesotho, southern Africa. Journal of Quaternary Science 28: 360-369.

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