Modern culture emerged in Africa 20,000 years earlier than anybody realized

Archeologists studying the remains of early humans in Africa have unveiled a number of ancient artifacts that push back the advent of modern culture to 44,000 years ago — way earlier than the previous estimates of 22,000 years ago.

The new dates are based on the radiocarbon dating of tools and other items found at Border Cave in the Lebombo Mountains near South Africa. And these artifacts reveal a surprisingly sophisticated culture — one that had even learned to harness the power of poisons and beeswax.

Items that can be seen in the image above include a) a wooden digging stick; b) a wooden poison applicator; c) a bone arrow point decorated with a spiral incision filled with red pigment; d) a bone object with four sets of notches; e) a lump of beeswax; and f) ostrich eggshell beads and marine shell beads used as personal ornaments. The image comes courtesy Francesco d'Errico and Lucinda Backwell via LA Times.

Modern culture emerged in Africa 20,000 years earlier than anybody realizedS

The study was conducted by an international team of experts, including researchers from South Africa, France, Italy, Norway, the USA, and Britain. Details of their findings were published yesterday (July 30) in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The archaeological materials uncovered by the anthropologists portray a remarkably complex culture — and one that emerged far earlier than anyone could have imagined. This was around the same time that humans were making their way into Europe, but experts believe there were significant differences between the two groups. Anthropologists refer to this era (which we now know began as early as 44,000 years ago) as the Later Stone Age, comparable to the Upper Paleolithic.

Specific artifacts left behind by these San hunter-gatherer peoples include ostrich eggshell beads, thin bone arrowhead points, wooden digging sticks, a gummy material called pitch that was used to affix bone and stone blades to shafts. There were also worked tusks from a boar-like creature that were used to plane wood, and notched bones that were likely used for counting.

And then there was the remarkable discovery of poison — what would have been (literally) the killer app of hunting technology back then. Chemical analysis indicated that poison was being applied to bone points, a substance that was likely derived from the seeds of castor oil plants (ricinoleic acid). The poison-tipped bone points would have been thrust through the thick hide of a medium or large-sized herbivore — but because this weapon lacked ‘knock-down' power, it would have been part of a larger, highly skilled attack.

Archeologists also found wooden digging sticks, which were found near bored and broken stones, likely to weigh the sticks down. These devices were probably used by the San culture to dig up bulbs and termite larvae — a practice that continued for tens of thousands of years.

As for the beeswax, which was also dated to 40,000 years ago, it is the oldest specimen known to be used by humans. It was likely used as a kind of adhesive (what's called hafting), while other specimens wrapped in plant fibers indicate that it was used to make the strings for hunting bows.

The Upper Paleolithic era was characterized by the emergence of complex and new technologies that helped humans survive in both Africa and Europe. These tools included spear-throwers, bone needles with eyelets for sewing furs, bone fishing hooks, bone flutes, and ivory figurines carved from mammoth tusks.

And astonishingly, this study suggests that Upper Paleolithic culture may have roots even earlier than 44,000 years ago — possibly as early as 50,000 to 60,000 years ago. If this is correct, and if new archaeological evidence reaffirms these suspicions, it is quite possible that the first humans to venture into Europe were actually influenced by this phase of African culture.

Reference: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1202629109 and 10.1073/pnas.1204213109.

Inset image via University of Colorado at Boulder.