Cleaning up the Stone Ages

Goodwin's immediate predecessor was Louis Peringuey, an entomologist and veteran of the Franco-Prussian war who later became director of the South African Museum. He published widely on archaeological topics in the period 1892-1917 although by the end of his life this interest had abated. According to Goodwin "[he] was no chicken when he died and had little interest in archaeology by then" (in Malan 1970: 89). His approach to his museum duties was seigneurial. Museum attendants would line up and salute him in the morning, whereupon he replied with his walking stick, "giving a sword-salute very smartly". Goodwin recalls that Peringuey "dumped a few tons of tools under the skeleton shed", but also that he "kept the best stuff in his desk", unlabelled, to be produced with a flourish for his more deserving visitors.

Two ideas underpinned approaches to prehistory in this period. The first was the idea that the South African material needed to be referred back to the European sequence, and in particular the French Palaeolithic, which provided the benchmark for European prehistory (following the work of G de Mortillet). Thus, to take an example more or less at random, JP Johnson (1907) described a long, lanceolate spearhead of indurated shale as resembling "certain well-known Solutro-Magdalenian types of Europe", although it is almost certainly "of more recent date than the associated Acheulean types". Peringuey (1911) divided the South African Stone Age into "Neolithic elements", "Inland, or Aurignacian...Littoral, or Solutro-Magdalenian", and "Stellenbosch" or "Orange River" types. Within this broad schema, which might be termed the "Palaeolithic in Africa", debates concerned the relative antiquity of the South African material (which was generally thought to be more recent), as well as migrationist/diffusionist debates concerning the nature of the transmission of the European types. At the same time, some reservations were expressed regarding the applicability of the European scheme, most significantly by AC Haddon during a visit of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1905.

Detail BC290/105

A second underpinning idea identified South African prehistory with a contemporary, ethnically designated group, the "Bushmen" or "San". The Bushmen were understood to be the authors of prehistory, in whole or in part, and the terms "Bushman relics", "Bushman remains" and "Bushman drawings" are commonly substituted in the literature for archaeological artefacts and rock paintings. This formulation was legally codified in the Bushman Relics Act of 1911, the first conservation legislation in South Africa, following hard on the heels of the Act of Union. The Bushman Relics Act was intended to extend a measure of protection to archaeological sites (especially rock-art sites), but also to control the burgeoning trade in human remains of Bushman origins (Legassick and Rassool 1999). At the back of this idea, in turn, was another widely held conception of the Bushmen as a remnant race or evolutionary hold-over, literally as "living" prehistory. This is an idea with a long (and ongoing) pedigree in South African thought, letters and popular culture. In the period under review it received its most influential expression in the work of Stow (1905).

Who made them? What else did these folk make? Is the "Axe-edged" implement really made by the same people as the dainty lance-head? Are they older than the implements of the Pygmy-makers? What relationship exists between the lance-head and the coup de poing of the earlier folk? Worrying questions to one who is trying hard to "clean up the stone ages".

Together, these two notions, the "Palaeolithic in Africa" and "Bushman prehistory", inform a developing discourse around past times in the closing decades of the nineteenth century and the opening decades of the twentieth century. On the one hand, they introduced a specifically European optic, so that in the most literal (and surreal) of ways these early workers were scratching hopefully in harsh local soils for signs that could be linked back to a cave in France. On the other hand, they set up a degree of slippage between prehistory, Bushman Studies and Bantu Studies, or between Archaeology and Ethnology, as they would come to be framed, whose intellectual territory was understood to be substantially overlapping, if not identical.

Two events in the mid-1920s served to transform conceptions of South African prehistory. The first was Raymond Dart's published description of the Taung fossil of Australopithecus africanus (in Nature, 1925). This turned Dart into an "instant hero" in South Africa (Dubow 1996). Among the many notes of congratulations was one from General Jan Smuts, recently defeated as prime minister, and now biding time as the president of the South African Association for the Advancement of Science. In the press Smuts wrote of "an epoch-making discovery, not only of far-reaching importance from an anthropological point of view but also well calculated to concentrate attention on South Africa as the great field for scientific discovery which it undoubtedly is" (in Dubow 1996: 246).

On an international stage Dart's discovery was panned. Responses in Nature by (Sir) Arthur Keith and Grafton Eliot-Smith, respectively the foremost physical anthropologist of his day and the renowned London University neuroanatomist, doubted the human affinities of the skull. (Sir) Arthur Smith Woodward, a champion of "Piltdown man", dismissed the term Australopithecus as a barbarous combination of Latin and Greek. In fact, it was not until Le Gros Clark examined the material from Taung, Sterkfontein and Swartkrans in 1947 in the run-up to the first meeting of the First Pan-African Congress on Prehistory, and pronounced himself satisfied that the genus Australopithecus gained general acceptance (Tobias 1978).

The second event to change prevailing conceptions of the past was Goodwin's introduction of a local typology and nomenclature for the Stone Ages, and a conception of successive stages of prehistory. Goodwin's first position on returning from Cambridge had been as research assistant in ethnology to A Radcliffe Brown at the University of Cape Town. He was given the task of building up an ethnographical survey and bibliography "intended to provide the foundation of an Africa Institute at Cape Town" (Goodwin 1958). However, with the death of Periguey in March 1924, Goodwin turned his attention to the substantial stone-artefact holdings of the South African Museum. It is worth reconstructing the conditions under which Goodwin laboured, from a technical point of view. The museum's holdings consisted of hundreds of individual collections with little or no geographical, stereographic or contextualising information. For example, JM Bain's collection "could be shown lithologically to have come from vast areas south of the Vaal River. All had been submitted as a ‘single collection' and numbered as such. No supporting evidence was given, and only a few individual tools bore such locations as ‘Karoo', ‘Cape Province', ‘Free State'" (Goodwin 1958:27). Goodwin involved himself in the quintessentially archaeological tasks of formal comparison, and the construction of typologies, and, more tentatively, chronologies. It was while engaged in these problems that he began a correspondence with van Riet Lowe, then designing road-bridges for the Public Works Department in the Orange Free State. For Goodwin, tied to Cape Town by a lack of research funds and by his ethnological duties, van Riet Lowe provided a crucial link with the field. Goodwin, in turn, "converted" van Riet Lowe, and "drilled" him in the new terminology, an exercise that was to prove crucial in its broader acceptance.

Goodwin first introduced his schema at the Oudtshoorn meeting of the South African Association for the Advancement of Science in 1925, but withdrew it voluntarily, citing insufficient support. In the period March–July 1926, prompted in part by this failure, he published a series of popular articles on archaeology in the weekend edition of the mass-circulation daily newspaper the Cape Times, under the heading of "Sermons in Stone" (later amended to "Stories in Stone"). The articles addressed the history of prehistoric studies in South Africa, dwelt on the relation between the South African and French Palaeolithic sequence (including "the deduced relationship of Aurignacian, Capsian and ‘Bushman cultures'"), and outlined Goodwin's proposed terminology, an interesting choice of topics for the popular press.

In the first sermon Goodwin gives an account of earlier students of prehistory, including Peringuey and "contemporaries of his, and later collectors", Kannemeyer, Alfred Brown of Aliwal North, H Cottell of Cradock, and so on. He writes: "Now all of these men were trained either from books on European archaeology or by men who had themselves been trained in Europe. Thus every find made in South Africa was viewed through European spectacles" (Cape Times March 27, 1926). The third sermon begins: "Up till quite lately [sic] several presumptions have been made as to who were the original South Africans. It was first presumed long years ago that the Bushmen, as we loosely call them, were the first inhabitants of our country…On this has been pyramided a further presumption that all the stone implements found in South Africa were 'Bushman'" (Cape Times April 24, 1926). The seventh sermon ends with Goodwin fretting about terminology, this time in connection with the so-called "Eastern Culture" (a term later dropped). He asks in connection with the implements that make up this industry: "Who made them? What else did these folk make? Is the 'Axe-edged' implement really made by the same people as the dainty lance-head? Are they older than the implements of the Pygmy-makers? What relationship exists between the lance-head and the coup de poing of the earlier folk? Worrying questions to one who is trying hard to ‘clean up the stone ages'" (Cape Times May 29, 1926).

"Engraving on striated rock, Nooitgedacht, Kimberley". BC290/40b

Goodwin's schema was finally accepted at the Pretoria conference of the South African Association for the Advancement of Science in July 1926, a meeting attended by van Riet Lowe (who had missed the Oudtshoorn conference). In essence, what it proposed was a two-stage division of prehistory, and the substitution of local terms and culture for the European types. Thus, an Earlier Stone Age came into being comprising a Stellenbosch Culture, a Fauresmith Culture, and an uncertain Victoria West Culture (which was later shelved). The Later Stone Age contained the Smithfield Culture, the Pygmy or Microlithic Culture (amended to the Wilton at the Pretoria conference), and the problematic Eastern Culture (part of which was amended to the Stillbay). Subsequently a third stage was instituted, the Middle Stone Age, roughly equivalent to the Middle Paleolithic, following the work of Neville Jones in Southern Rhodesia (Jones 1926). The term Middle Stone Age was first used in 1927, and a description was read in 1928. Together, the contributions of Dart and Goodwin introduced a new object of contemplation into South African, and African, prehistoric studies: on the one hand, a transitional pre-human form imagined in terms of a narrative of biological evolution, and on the other hand, associated stages of cultural and technological development, imagined in terms of a succession of stages or "Cultures".