Modern Culture Began 20,000 Years Earlier Than We Thought

By Chelsea Whyte on July 31, 2012 8:35 PM EDT

bone points
Objects found in the archaeological site called Border Cave 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. (Photo: Francesco d'Errico and Lu)

The earliest evidence for modern culture has been found in a South African cave, and it is over 20,000 years older than pervious evidence of modern human behavior.

The findings from an international team of scientists are published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and show that poison-tipped arrows and jewelry made of ostrich egg beads are around 44,000 years old.

"The dating and analysis of archaeological material discovered at Border Cave in South Africa, 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 study author Lucinda Backwell.

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This emergence of modern culture in South Africa is associated with the San hunter-gatherer people and descendants of San people live today in southern Africa, so the items can clearly be traced forward to modern culture, unlike other archaeological finds, researchers said, according to The Christian Science Monitor.

The artifacts found by the researchers are nearly identical to tools of modern-day indigenous African San bush people, reports BBC News.

"You can hold [one of the] ancient artefacts in your left hand and a modern artefact in your right and they're exactly the same. It's incredible... the functions are very, very clear," Backwell told the BBC.

The findings tell of a highly evolved people said Francesco d'Errico of the French National Research Centre, who led the research team.

''They were fully modern genetically and cognitively,'' d'Errico told The Boston Globe. Symbolic behavior - such as using the ostrich bead jewels not only as adornments but also for bartering - shows their advanced cognitive abilities.

The team also found very thin bone points and a gummy substance called pitch, which was used to attach bone and stone blades to wooden shafts.

The bone points are "very good evidence" for the use of bows and arrows, said co-author Paola Villa, a curator at the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History, according to The Los Angeles Times. Some of the bone points were apparently coated with ricinoleic acid, a poison made from the castor bean. "Such bone points could have penetrated thick hides, but the lack of 'knock-down' power means the use of poison probably was a requirement for successful kills," she said.

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