Artist Geoff Hunter's view of southern African Homo erectus with hand axe.
In Africa, the earliest Stone Age began around 2,6 million years ago with the evidence for the oldest complex stone tools coming from East Africa. In Southern Africa, the oldest stone tools yet discovered are around two million years old. At the Victoria Falls, gravels can be found, on both sides of the river, that contain abundant evidence of these very early Stone Age cultures.
There is an archaeological site on the Zambian side where you can see cores, choppers, hand axes and other tools that were recovered from the remnant gravels of the ancient river. In fact, almost anywhere you stop along the roads leading to the lower gorges, you can find these tools readily, but please remember that it is illegal in both Zimbabwe and Zambia to collect these artifacts and they should remain where they are found.
On high plateaus and particularly in the vicinity of Kalahari sands, you can find abundant tools of later cultures, including tools of the Middle Stone Age, which began around 250 000 years ago and ended about 45 000 years ago. The Victoria Falls area appears to have been a favoured locality for Middle Stone Age hunter-gatherers, as several sites have been found.
Indeed, the renowned archaeologist Desmond J Clark believed that the mosaic of woodlands and marshlands of southwestern Zambia were ideal habitats for our early ancestors.
Archaeologists believe these Middle Stone Age communities had "home bases" from which they hunted, scavenged and gathered plant material.
It was during the Middle Stone Age that our own species, Homo sapiens emerged, signalling the start of a new consciousness that found expression in cultural practices such as burial of the dead, body decoration, rock art and more sophisticated stone technologies and hunting techniques.
Around 45 000 years ago, this new consciousness manifested itself in a highly refined stone tool kit that replaced the cruder hand axes and scrapers that had remained largely unchanged through the preceeding 200 000 years of the Middle Stone Age.
Late Stone Age camp site on the Zambezi
A Late Stone Age camping site has been unearthed on the Zambian side of the river approximately 2km upstream from the Victoria Falls. The site has been dated to between 8?000 and 2?000 years old. Among the artifacts found here are microlithic stone tools, grindstones, and wood-working stone axes.
Remnants of ostrich egg shells and ochre found here suggest the inhabitants wore personal adornment in the form of make-up and jewellery, while round flattish stones with holes in the middle are presumed to have been used for weighting digging sticks, implying there was some cultivation of crops or at least the digging of underground roots and tubers.
Image: Some of the tools recovered from the Stone Age camp site at Waterberry.
The remains of fossilised wild animal bones indicate that hunting may have been an important source of food for these communities. The renowned archaeologist Desmond J Clark believed that the powerfully built Cape buffalo were the most frequently hunted animals by these communities, but they also favoured a wide range of other animals, from eland to warthogs and cane rats.
Image: Zambezi River Stone Age camp site at Waterberry.
It is likely that fish formed part of their diet as well. It is unclear to what extent these encampments were permanent or whether the Late Stone Age hunters followed the seasonal migration of animals through the area.
In Southern Africa, the Late Stone Age is associated with the San, or Bushmen (a term which falls in and out of favour), known locally as the Kwengo.
The San once occupied most of the southern African interior, living in small nomadic groups, hunting and gathering their food. They are most famed for their rock art, which is found in thousands of stone overhangs and caves across the sub- continent, and, for well over 40?000 years, their lifestyle remained unchanged and unchallenged.Brett Hilton-Barber and Lee R. Berger. Copyright © 2010 Prime Origins.