Small Things Remembered: Origins of Early Microlithic Industries in Sub-Saharan Africa



Backed microliths made on small flakes and blades are considered the hallmark of Later Stone Age (LSA) industries of sub-Saharan Africa. However, some early LSA microlithic industries lack backed tools, others have extremely large ones, and some Middle Stone Age (MSA) industries also have high frequencies of blades and large backed “microliths.” The invention of blades, backed microliths, and microlithization were thus separate phenomena in sub-Saharan Africa. Given this diversity and complexity, a “one size fits all” model may neither satisfactorily characterize nor explain the origin of blade-based technologies, large backed tools in the MSA, and microlithic industries in the LSA. This chapter will briefly summarize the evidence for early backed tool and microlithic industries and then evaluate several hypotheses for microlithization and backed tool production, including the invention of composite hafted tools, punch blade technology, hunting with bow and arrow in closed habitats, invention of poisons for projectiles, increased access to fine-grained raw materials, increased mobility, conservation of scarce materials, giving gifts of backed microliths made on fine-grained exotic raw materials, and manufacture of more effective specialized toolkits when increased information sharing permitted reliable anticipation of tasks. If microlithic and backed blade–based industries were invented in Africa, then understanding their origin may provide insight into the evolution of modern human behavior and the dispersal of modern humans and modern human technology out of Africa.