Challenging current wisdom that modern man migrated out of Africa


Bob Maurer


The speaker started by saying that he considered several alternative titles for this presentation:

  • First evidence of migration due to climate change in the Palaeolithic era;
  • Did modern man’s cognitive abilities mature in Eurasia?
  • Is art a better yardstick than stone tool shapes for measuring modern man’s cultural development?

He intended to present evidence tracing art forms representing animals of present southern African savannah in top-central and North Africa in the Palaeolithic.


Conventionally, the evolution to and movement of early modern and modern man out of Africa has been traced to a large extent by the degree of sophistication of stone hand tools (eg Chris Stringer).  The present wisdom is that Homo heidelbergensis evolved into early modern man in Africa and to Neanderthal man in a cooler Europe and that early-modern humans first arrived in Europe 40-35,000 years ago.  The speaker asked whether a possible alternative was that early-modern man migrated southwards with their cattle through Italy and Sicily to North Africa and presented evidence based on rock art.


Ancient carvings at Benghazi dated at 8-10,000 years show the people are garbed, a European rather than an African custom.  There are also carvings of a hippo and a python alongside a human head and carved heads which are not African but European in their features.  On a hill near Benghazi is a detailed carving of a domestic bovid, which is not indigenous to Africa.  It bears a close resemblance to the representations of aurochs and domestic bovids in the Lascaux Caves, France.  Wild aurochs (Bos primigenius) were the ancestors of modern cattle, with divergence about 7,000 years ago and domestication about 8,000 years ago.  Present African cattle (Nguni) show genetic traces from Saudi Arabia.


Conventional classification on the basis of hand tools is:

  • Oldovan tools – 2.5-1.5 M years;
  • Acheulean tools – 1.5-0.5M years;
  • Mousterian tools (Neanderthal) – mid-Palaeolithic 300,000-200,000 years;
  • Aurignacian tools – 100,000-45,000 years, upper Palaeolithic in Europe and lower Palaeolithic in Africa.


Shorelines in the Palaeolithic were higher than today and would have allowed migration paths down through Italy and Sicily into North Africa to move away from icy weather in Eurasia to look for food.  At that time, Lake Chad was a major lake and the North African area was not desert.


The Akakus mountain range in southern Libya has a large, wide, ancient river (wadi), which is now dry with occasional oases.  There are major rock art finds in these mountains, eg caves in the Mazuq area of the Libyan desert.   One example is a painted war or raid scene, which is similar to the bushman paintings in South Africa.  The Bushman (or San) art shows the San people with short fat legs and large posterior (steatogypia from gorging when food is available and living on the fat reserves thus accumulated).  These contrast with the long-legged and thin armed raiders.  San art has stick men and stylised savannah animals and there is a stylised drawing of a long-legged huntsman and horse about 300 years old.  There is also a preponderance of hand signatures.


There are rock carvings of a rhino in Natal and polychrome drawings of eland/gazelle in South Africa but are these really of San origin?  San paintings continued through the years, eg one of a boer ox wagon during the great trek.  While this is dateable by the event it records, the speaker accepted that it is very difficult to date rock art.


Advanced-design axe heads were found by the speaker in a cave near Johannesburg, which are almost identical to Mousterian tools (Neanderthal).  They are made of silcrete and have been hardened in fire and probably date from 0.5-1.0M years.  He also showed what appears to have been a millstone, the central hole being highly polished.  In Libya, ground holes for grinding corn/olives are found in the Mezzak area.


The speaker commented on the great diversity in physical features of modern Africans.


In a cave in Mezzak, there is a painting of hunting with dogs, the hunter being naked.  Another one shows 2 lots of people, one garbed and the other not – the raiders are wearing kilts and head adornments.  One example shows domestic herding with dogs, the men wearing kilts and a polychrome painting of a bovid.  Another shows camels accompanied by men with headgear and pantaloons but camels only arrived in Africa 2,500-3,000 years ago, being of Asiatic origin.  Another shows possible traders exporting animals to Rome (again about 2,000 years old?).  Unfortunately, much of the rock art has been destroyed by vandalism.


At Mezzak is a 3-5km-wide river bed with occasional trees, a relic of the time when the Sahara was much wetter than now.  At 18-20,000 years ago, northern Europe was glaciated, there was tundra in France/Germany and the Balkans and Greece were steppes.  The rock art shows a crouching lion, the style of which is very similar, particular in the depiction of the tensed haunches, to the raging bison from Altamira, Spain.  There are also rhinos, crocodiles, deer and domesticated bovids and one example of the joining of two animals, showing conceptual thought.  The Libyan rock art is similar to that at Lascaux 20-30,000 years ago.  It would seem that art is a much better index of cognitive development than stone tools.


At Mezzak is a domestic farm scene with Eurasian women.  The people were hunter-gatherers in the Palaeolithic, became herders in the Mesolithic and farmers in the Neolithic.  Mezzak also has what can be interpreted as solstice calendars and men with animal heads upending a hippo, similar to the depictions of Egyptian gods.  This art matured in Europe, not in Africa.


Mesolithic burial mounds are found on the floor of the wadi, made at a time when the Sahara had become desert.  Graves dated at 6-7,000 years contained the body of a child, together with provisions for the after-life, so religion was already well advanced.


Several authors have developed classifications of the development of modern early man.  One example has the Camel period at 0-200 years BC, the Horse period at 1,000 years BC and the Late pastoral period at 2,000 years BC.  Art activities have been classified as:

  • 10,000 years BC – wild aurochs;
  • 9,500 years BC – start of coloured animals;
  • 8,500 years BC – roundhead;
  • 7,500 years BC – polychrome art;
  • 6,500 years BC – pastoral period Mediterranean types – long-limbed herdsmen of Nilo-Hamitic type;
  • 3,500 years BC – horse period
  • 0 years BC – Camel period


The speaker considered that a reasonable representation of development, in years before present was:

  • 35,000 – stone tools, primitive cave art, Homo heidelbergensis and Neanderthals, mid-Palaeolithic;
  • 13,000 – advanced art in Europe, ice-age migration from Europe to Africa;
  • 10-7,000 – carved artefacts, migration to Nile delta;
  • 5,000 – metal artefacts, migration southwards from North Africa;
  • 2,000 – polychrome art, Eurasians bring camels to Africa.


The genetic trail conventionally shows only migration out of Africa but a possible alternative is:

  • Upper Palaeolithic – migration south through Italy to North Africa;
  • Mesolithic/Neolithic – desertification of the Sahara and migration north to Spain, east to Egypt and south to southern/central Africa.


There were two types of migration, those of communities and those of invading armies.




Modern man migrated south through Italy and Sicily into North Africa then re-desertification of the Sahara forced outward migration. 


For art to flourish, a communal life-style must be present, which pre-supposes at least 3 generations available in communities.  History and training of the young is carried out by tribal elders. Depictive art is the communications channel prior to the development of symbols representing phonetic sounds.  Art rather than tool-making appears to be a better marker of human development.