At the margins of Late Pleistocene
subcontinental networks

- Interdisciplinary investigations of the cultural, chronological and environmental sequence of Pockenbank, Namibia


Prehistoric archaeological research on the evolution of anatomically modern humans in southern Africa during the Late Pleistocene is increasingly becoming a multidisciplinary endeavour. How technological and socio-economic innovations are linked to hominin cognitive capacities during the so-called Middle Stone Age (MSA) are a major focus of current research. An important part of understanding the emergence, distribution and disappearance of these innovations is to understand regional social networks and demographic changes.




Project aims (more)

The main aim of this geoarchaeological project - funded by the UoC Postdoc Grant - is to investigate both the relationship between discontinuous cultural occupation patterns and the regional climatic history at the juncture between Namib Desert and Great Escarpment in southwestern Namibia. New data obtained by our re-excavation of the site of Pockenbank Rock Shelter are set into regional and supra-regional contexts by applying a set of selected archaeological and geoarchaeological methods.

The site Pockenbank Rock Shelter (more)

The site Pockenbank is formed by a large rock shelter in a limestone wall. During a first test-pit excavation in 1969, Wolfgang Erich Wendt uncovered a complex stratified sediment accumulation. Later published by
Vogelsang (1998), the sequence covers several phases of the Later Stone Age (LSA) and MSA occupations. The latter also includes the Howiesons Poort (HP) and possibly Still Bay (SB) technocomplexes, that are
associated with hominin behavioural innovations in southern Africa. The site Apollo 11, some 80 km away, provides a good regional comparison due to similar archaeological material and composition of the cultural sequences.

Catalogue of Methods (more)

This project applies a wide range of archaeological and geoarchaeological analytical tools to ensure
reliable and significant results detailed below.

Technological analysis of lithic artefacts

This approach investigates cultural and economic aspects during prehistoric
procurement and use of lithic material. Innovations and traditions will be examined and compared to each other using new data with improved temporal and spatial resolution.

(Image: I.S.)


Petrographic analysis describes the raw materials which were used for lithic artefact
production. By tracing original sources of the material, it provides information on (changing)         
mobility and land use patterns of prehistoric hunter-gatherer groups.

(Image: I.S.)

AMS radiocarbon dating

AMS radiocarbon is used to date anthropogenic carbonaceous material (e.g. from hearths) in order to             
identify the moment and duration of human occupation. Samples with an age up to 50.000 years before
present are datable. Apart from a more reliable regional chronology, we aim to obtain information on
settlement duration and intensity.

OSL dating (optically stimulated luminescence)

Archaeological layers are often covered with younger sediments. OSL measures the time since the last
exposure of quartz or feldspar to sunlight. This method extends the datable range up to 200.000 years            
before present.

Sedimentology and geochemistry

Field and laboratory analyses are used to characterize the mineralogical and organic
composition and to reconstruct sedimentation geneses. It allows the minute description of a stratigraphic order. On-site and off-site archives are sampled.

(Image: E.H.)


This method helps to clarify the sedimentary geneses and post-depositional processes at Pockenbank Rock Shelter. The microscopic examination of sediment thin sections aims to identify and describe soil forming
processes and signs of anthropogenic, biogenic and
geogenic activities.

(Image: E.H.)

Stable isotopes of ostrich eggshell

The stable isotopes of carbon, nitrogen and oxygen from ostrich eggshells allow us to infer changes in relative amounts of precipitation and climatic conditions of the past.

(Images: E.H., I.S.)

Pollen analysis (palynology)

Palynology aims to identify the genera and/or species of pollen found in the
sediments. Their types and relative frequencies help to reconstruct the
palaeovegetation during the late Pleistocene. However, in arid areas pollen are        
rarely preserved.


Anthracology (determination of charcoal)

The woods and shrubs used by prehistoric humans can be determined based on the charred macrofossil remains found in hearths. This contributes to the
reconstruction of the regional vegetation history and human use.

(Source: Carlquist 2007)

Landscape reconstruction / Mapping of Resources

Digital terrain models and topographic maps are processed. Maps of current soil composition and distribution  are combined with past and present climate data and archaeological information to reconstruct prehistoric landscapes.

(Image: E.H., Dataset: Acacia Project E1 2012)

Work in Progress (more)

The re-excavation campaign was successfully completed in late May 2015. The prior excavation section of Wolfgang Erich Wendt was enlarged and a detailed study of the complex stratigraphic sequence was
possible, including comprehensive sampling for the geoarchaeological methods. Analysis of
sedimentology and micromorphology was conducted as a master's thesis (by Elena Hensel) at the Institute of Geography under the supervision of Dr. Martin Kehl and Prof. Olaf Bubenzer.

Processing of further samples is currently underway. More information about the project and first results are available at Publications / Downloads.

Publications / Download (more)



Schmidt I., Ossendorf, G., Hensel, E.A., Bubenzer, O., Eichhorn, B., Gessert, L., Gwasira, G., Henselowsky, F., Imalwa, E., Kehl, M., Rethemeyer, Röpke, A., Sealy, J., Stengel, I., Tusenius, M. (2016):

New investigations at the Middle Stone Age site of Pockenbank Rockshelter, Namibia. Antiquity+ 90 (353).

Hensel, E.A. (2016):

Geoarchäologische Untersuchungen zur Genese der Sedimentabfolge des Middle und Early Later Stone Age im Pockenbank Rock Shelter, Südwest Namibia. M. Sc. thesis: University of Cologne.

Schmidt, I., Ossendorf, G., Bolten, A., Bubenzer, O. (2016):

Human occupation in southern Namibia during the Late Pleistocene – A geoarchaeological approach. Quaternary International 404(B): 186-187.

Ossendorf, G. (in press.):

Technological analyses of Late Pleistocene Later Stone Age lithic assemblages from Apollo 11 rock shelter, ǀǀKaras region, south-western Namibia. South African Archaeological Bulletin 73 (205).

Schmidt I. (2015):

At the Margins of Late Pleistocene Subcontinental Networks - Interdisciplinary Investigation of the Cultural, Chronological and Environmental Sequence of Pockenbank, Namibia. Universität zu Köln: Forschung 2015-16, 52-53.

Ossendorf, G. (2013):

Spätpleistozäne Jäger-Sammler des südwestlichen Namibias. PhD dissertation: University of Cologne.


Posters and Presentations

Schmidt, I., Brill, D., Bubenzer, O., Hensel, E.A., Kehl, M., Ossendorf, G., Rethemeyer, J. (2016):

Should I stay or should I go? - Interdisciplinary study of occupation discontinuity at Pockenbank Rock Shelter (south-western Namibia) during the Late Pleistocene; Presentation at the 23rd biennial SAfA meeting, Society of Africanist Archaeologists, Toulouse, France.

Hensel, E.A., Kehl, M., Ossendorf, G., Schmidt I. (2016):

The Late Pleistocene archaeological sequence at Pockenbank Rock Shelter, Namibia: First insights into site formation processes; 23rd biennial SAfA meeting, Society of Africanist Archaeologists, Toulouse, France.

Hensel, E.A., Bubenzer, O., Kehl, M., Ossendorf, G., Schmidt I. (2016):

At the desert’s margin: Site formation processes at the Late Pleistocene archaeological sequence of Pockenbank Rock Shelter; Inside-Outside-Workshop: Integrating Cave and Open-Air Archives, Köln, Germany 2016.

Hensel, E.A., Bubenzer, O., Kehl, M., Schmidt I. (2015):

Die Aussagekraft der Sedimente – Geoarchäologische Untersuchungsmethoden zur Sequenz des Pockenbank Rock Shelters, Namibia; Jahrestagung Geographischer Arbeitskreis Subsaharisches Afrika (AKSA), Köln, Germany, 2015.

Henselowsky, F., Bolten, A., Bubenzer, O., Ossendorf, G., Pflüger, O., Schmidt, I., Stengel, I. (2015)

The Kaukausib catchment in southwestern Namibia: Drainage network, surface runoff and vegetation
feedback after extreme rainfalls
; Jahrestagung Geographischer Arbeitskreis Subsaharisches Afrika (AKSA), Köln, Germany, 2015.

Schmidt I., Bolten, A., Bubenzer, O., Eichhorn, B., Gwasira, G., Hensel, E.A., Henselowsky, F., Kehl, M.,
Ossendorf, G., Rethemeyer, J., Sealy, J., Stengel, I., Tusenius, M. (2015):

Late Pleistocene hunter-gatherer networks: subcontinental or regional expressions? - interdisciplinary
geoarchaeological investigations in south-western Namibia;
XIX Congress International Union for Quaternary Research (INQUA), Nagoya, Japan, 2015.

Schmidt I., Bolten, A., Bubenzer, O., Eichhorn, B., Hensel, E.A., Henselowsky, F., Kehl, M., Ossendorf, G.,
Rethemeyer, J., Röpke, A., Sealy, J., Stengel, I., Tusenius, M. (2015):

Methoden im Projekt „Pockenbank“ (Namibia) – interdisziplinäre geoarchäologische Untersuchungen; Tag der Forschung, Neanderthal Museum, Mettmann, Germany, 2015.

Schmidt I., Ossendorf, G., Bolten, A., Bubenzer, O., (2015):

Human occupation in southern Namibia during the Late Pleistocene – a geoarchaeological approach; Presentation at the AfQUA Conference, University of Cape Town, 2015.

Research team & cooperation partners (more)

  • Dr. Isabell Schmidt Institute of Prehistoric Archaeology, University of Cologne
  • Dr. Götz Ossendorf School of Geography, Archaeology and Environmental Studies,
    University of the Witwatersrand
  • Dr. Andreas Bolten Institute of Geography, University of Cologne
  • Prof. Dr. Olaf Bubenzer Institute of Geography, Universität zu Köln
  • Dr. Barbara Eichhorn Institute of Archaeological Sciences, Goethe Universität Frankfurt
  • M.A. Goodman Gwasira Department of Geography, History and Environmental Studies,
    University of Namibia
  • M.Sc. Elena Hensel Institute of Geography, University of Cologne
  • M.Sc. Felix Henselowsky Institute of Geography, University of Cologne
  • M.A. Emma Imalwa  National Museum of Namibia
  • Dr. Martin Kehl Institute of Geography, University of Cologne
  • Prof. Dr. Judith Sealy Department of Archaeology, University of Cape Town
  • Prof. Dr. Ingrid Stengel Department of Geo-Spatial Sciences, Namibia
    University of Science and Technology
  • Dr. Madelon Tusenius Natura Viva cc, Cape Town
  • Prof. Dr. Janet Rethemeyer Institute of Geology und Mineralogy, University of Cologne
  • Dr. Astrid Röpke Archaeobotanical Laboratory, Institute of Prehistoric Archaeology,
    University of Cologne

Acknowledgments (more)


The project is financed by a Postdoc Research Grant of the University of Cologne awarded to I. Schmidt.

We thank the National Museum of Namibia for hosting material and research, the National Heritage Council of Namibia for supporting the project, and the African Research Unit, University of Cologne, for providing
research facilities.

The project benefited from help and assistance of Werner Schuck, Nora Jansen, Charlie & Helga Goodwin, Helmut Paffrath, Joel Orrin, Sylviane Scharl, Ralf Vogelsang, Wei Chu, Thomas Wolter (all University of
Cologne), Karim Sadr (University of the Witwatersrand), Jill & John Kinahan (Quaternary Research
Services), Dieter Noli (Namdeb), Jayson Orton (ASHA Consulting) and Beatrice Sandelowsky (The
University Centre for Studies in Namibia).

Special thanks to Lothar, Melli and Mette Gessert for the great hospitality and support during fieldwork!