By the Campfire: Pyrotechnology and Middle Stone Age Hearths at Sibudu Cave


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Publication Date

November 2014


The Middle Stone Age rockshelter site of Sibudu, South Africa, contains abundant evidence of pyrotechnology (the controlled use of fire) such as combustion features, ashy layers and lenses and burned bone. This thesis studied the use, reuse and discard of fire at Sibudu and the layers Brown/Grey mix and Brown under Yellow Ash 2(i) from the post-Howiesons Poort industry (c. 58,000 BP) and Pinkish Grey Sand and Pinkish Grey Sand 2 from the Howiesons Poort techno-tradition (c. 65,000 BP) were selected for detailed studies. The thesis describes the properties of selected combustion features, such as size, form, the number of hearth strata, contents (bone, charcoal and stone) and pH values. The post-Howiesons Poort combustion features generally contain a higher proportion of charcoal and are more acidic than the Howiesons Poort combustion features, suggesting post-depositional differences. Twenty actualistic experiments including 39 experimental fires constitute the largest component and contribution of this thesis. The experiments were conducted in two cycles: the first cycle of experiments burned (in different fires) one each of the wood taxa Casuarina equisetifolia, Dichrostachys cinerea, Eucalyptus globulus or Acacia erioloba, while the second cycle of experiments burned Dichrostachys cinerea exclusively. Variables such as wood mass, topsoil horizon and the number of sequential fires were carefully controlled. The surface and sub-surface temperatures of the experimental fires were recorded. The experimental hearths were excavated using similar techniques to those used at Sibudu. Surface temperatures vary greatly even under similar environmental conditions, but sub-surface temperatures are more predictable. Five kilograms of wood are sufficient to produce high temperatures for several hours and slowly adding logs to a fire ensures even temperatures. Sibudu's hearths have a basal black layer, but experimental fires do not. Instead, they produced between two and five distinct strata, and long-burning fires produced


Middle Stone Age, Msa, Sibudu, South Africa, Pyrotechnology