MOTHER TONGUE
Newsletter of the Association for the Study of Language In Prehistory

Issue 25 · Summer 1995


Most Important Find in the Nile-Congo Zwischengebiet

John Yellen and colleague archeologists have unearthed a key piece of evidence for putative early modern man around 90,000 years ago. It was found during excavations in the highlands between Lakes Edward and Albert along the Congo (Zaire) border with East Africa (Uganda). This area abuts what early German explorers called the Nil-Kongo Zwischengebiet -- between the watershed of the mighty Congo and that of the majestic Nile. Although technically in political Zaire, the site basically is in the east African highlands. One might also call the area the Pygmy-Bushman Zwischengebiet too. And the country is beautiful.

Yellen's team found harpoons (and more) which in details of their manufacture are considerably more like the work of early modern technologies such as the Upper Paleolithic of Europe than like the cruder technologies of the Middle Stone Age or earlier periods -- but with some African cultures like Lupemban sometimes sophisticated too. In brief, they thought it was the work of Homo sapiens sapiens, i.e., anatomically modern man. The thinking is basically correlational, of course, because cruder stuff mostly is associated with non-modern humans, while the more specialized, more finely turned-out stuff mostly is associated with modern humans. Clarifying the reasoning does not, of course, in any way refute it. But it does mean that statistically oriented thinking would insist that the harpoons could have been made by non-modern humans.

Harpoons have been found in later periods in Uganda where their dating unfortunately was bedeviled by contamination of shells (used in the dating) and one can only say that a kind of harpooning tradition persisted around the east African lakes for many millennia. What it led to or who was linked to it cannot be said, although John Sutton's 'aquatic civilization' circa 7000BC might link it to Nilo-Saharan. (Dan McCall suggested it.) However, modern peoples in several east African lakes still hunt hippos with fire-hardened wooden spears, use hooks for lesser fish and possibly harpoons for the very large fish endemic to those lakes. (It's only a question of memory and looking up the ethnographies - sorry!)

Long rangers need hardly be reminded that this is the first archeological site in Africa and practically everywhere else in the world where this putative association of advanced tools and modern man can be found so early. True the Levant has earlier moderns (90-100k) but the tools are not so spiffy. Given the far far greater intensity of archeological excavation in the Levant, compared to eastern Africa, then it is quite reasonable to expect that more sites like this will be found in the four great highland countries (Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, and Ethiopia). Yellen's discoveries do not threaten the thesis that early modern mankind either began in eastern Africa or got there soon after their origin elsewhere.

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(c) 1996 Association for the Study of Language In Prehistory