During a study of the Still Bay industry at Sibudu (Kwa-Zulu-Natal, South Africa), we observed ochre deposits on the platforms of flakes associated with the production of bifacial points, which are highly characteristic of this industry. We discuss several hypotheses to explain this phenomenon, implicating either an intentional or unintentional anthropogenic origin, or a natural origin. These considerations are based on the characteristics of the ochre deposits (appearance, position and distribution), the technical features of the lithic artifacts on which they are observed and the sedimentary and archaeological context in which they were found. All of these elements converge to demonstrate that the ochre was indirectly deposited on the flake platforms through the use of iron oxide nodules as knapping tools for the manufacture of bifacial points. The significance of this behavior is discussed in light of increasingly frequent discoveries of ochre or other mineral materials with equivalent properties in the context of the MSA in South Africa.
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.