Middle Stone Age technological and behavioural developments in southern Africa are central to understanding the emergence of modern humans, and elucidating the role of environmental change in this trajectory is dependent on emerging palaeoclimatic reconstructions. Climate proxies from Middle Stone Age sites are often poorly preserved, coarsely resolved or subject to anthropogenic selection and are not considered in favour of global environmental proxies despite the fact that the modern climate regimes at the relevant archaeological sites differ profoundly. Sibudu has a well-preserved Middle Stone Age sequence that has yielded abundant palaeoclimate proxy data. Isotopic analysis of charcoal, charcoal anatomy and species representation, macro- and micro-faunal remains, sediment texture, mineralogy and magnetic susceptibility, pollen and macrobotanical remains provide evidence for the environmental succession specific to this site. The isotopic data suggest that archaeological charcoal was not significantly post-depositionally altered. During the Howiesons Poort (65–62 ka) the local environment was thickly forested, moist and more humid than during the 58 ka occupations. The environment changes during the post-Howiesons Poort occupation (~58 ka) into the late MSA occupation (~48 ka); conditions became drier and colder than present with vegetation shifting to open savanna grassland or woodlands.
Terrace farming flourished in Bokoni from the sixteenth century CE onwards. Bokoni farmers’ resilience strategies, however, were severely tested during the third occupation phase (approx. 1780 to 1840 CE), when the mfecane destabilised the region. In order to reflect on the environmental conditions Bokoni farmers faced in this period the stable carbon isotope proxy rainfall records from Prunus africana and Pittosporum viridiflorum specimens that grew on the Buffelskloof site were studied. Because the Buffelskloof records postdate the occupation, the records are compared with a 1000-year Adansonia digitata rainfall proxy record from the Pafuri region. Deviations between the two are attributed to the juvenile effect, and when these are discounted there is a significant correlation between local and regional rainfall records. This suggests common large-scale synoptic forcing underlies regional rainfall variability, and the decadal-scale variability in the Adansonia digitata records indicates extremely dry conditions in the 1780 to 1840 CE period.