Human behaviour emerged much earlier than previously thought

Recent archaeological discoveries have revealed that pigment use, beads, engravings and sophisticated stone and bone tools were already present in southern Africa 75,000 years ago. But many of these artefacts had disappeared by 60,000 years ago, suggesting that modern behaviour appeared in the past and was subsequently lost before becoming firmly established.

A key question in human evolution is when in prehistory human cultures similar to the present emerged. Most archaeologists had believed the oldest traces of the San hunter-gatherer culture in Southern Africa dated back 10,000 or, at most, 20,000 years – but this has now been pushed back to 44,000 years ago.

An international team of researchers led by Francesco d’Errico, director of research at the French National Research Centre, dated and directly analysed objects from archaeological layers at Border Cave. Located in the foothills of the Lebombo Mountains in KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, the site has yielded exceptionally well-preserved organic material.

The findings were reported last week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the United States.

“The dating and analysis of archaeological material discovered at Border Cave has allowed us to demonstrate that many elements of material culture that characterise the lifestyle of San hunter-gatherers in Southern Africa were part of the culture and technology of the inhabitants of this site 44,000 years ago,” said Dr Lucinda Backwell, a senior researcher in palaeoanthropology at the Bernard Price Institute for Paleontological Research at the University of the Witwatersrand in in South Africa.

Backwell said the results showed “without a doubt” that around 44,000 years ago the people at Border Cave were using digging sticks weighted with perforated stones, like those traditionally used by the San. They adorned themselves with ostrich egg and marine shell beads, and notched bones for notational purposes.

“They fashioned fine bone points for use as awls, and poisoned arrowheads. One point is decorated with a spiral groove filled with red ochre, which closely parallels similar marks that San make to identify their arrowheads when hunting,” Backwell said.

Chemical analysis of residues on a wooden stick decorated with incisions revealed that, like San objects used for the same purpose today, it was used to hold and carry a poison containing ricinoleic acid found in castor beans. This represented the earliest evidence for the use of poison.

A lump of beeswax, mixed with the resin of toxic Euphorbia, and possibly egg, was wrapped in vegetal fibres made from the inner bark of a woody plant. “This complex compound used for hafting arrowheads or tools, directly dated to 40,000 years ago, is the oldest known evidence of the use of beeswax,” Backwell said.

Warthog tusks were shaped into awls and possibly spear heads. The use of small pieces of stone to arm hunting weapons was confirmed by the discovery of resin residue still adhering to some of the tools, which chemical analysis identified as a suberin, a waxy substance produced from the sap of yellowwood trees.

The study of stone tools, discovered in the same archaeological layers as the organic remains and from older deposits, showed a gradual evolution in stone tool technology. Organic artefacts, unambiguously reminiscent of San material culture, appeared relatively abruptly, highlighting an apparent mismatch in rates of cultural change.

This finding supported the view that what archaeologists perceive today as ‘modern behaviour’ was the result of non-linear trajectories that may be better understood when documented at a regional scale.

The research team consisted of scientists from Britain, France, Italy, Norway, South Africa and the US. The paper, “Early Evidence of San Material Culture Represented by Organic Artifacts from Border Cave, South Africa”, was written by Francesco d’Errico, Lucinda Backwell, Paola Villa, Ilaria Degano, Jeannette Lucejko, Marion Bamford, Thomas Higham, Maria Perla Colombini and Peter Beaumont.