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July 31, 2012

Modern culture emerged in South Africa 20,000 years earlier than thought

Washington: A new international study led by the University of Colorado Boulder pushes back onset date of South Africa’s Later Stone Age by more than 20,000 years. The study showed the onset of the Later Stone Age in South Africa likely began some 44,000 to 42,000 years ago -- about the same time humans were migrating from Africa to the European continent, said Paola Villa, a curator at the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History and lead study author. The new dates are based on the use of precisely calibrated radiocarbon dates linked to organic artifacts found at Border Cave in the Lebombo Mountains on the border of South Africa and Swaziland containing evidence of hominid occupation going back 200,000 years. The Later Stone Age is synonymous to many archaeologists with the Upper Paleolithic Period, when modern humans moved from Africa into Europe roughly 45,000 years ago and spread rapidly, displacing and eventually driving Neanderthals to extinction. The timing of the technological innovations and changes in the Later Stone Age in South Africa are comparable to that of the Upper Paleolithic, said Villa. “Our research proves that the Later Stone Age emerged in South Africa far earlier than has been believed and occurred at about the same time as the arrival of modern humans in Europe ,” said Villa. “But differences in technology and culture between the two areas are very strong, showing the people of the two regions chose very different paths to the evolution of technology and society,” the researcher added. Organic artifact assemblages at Border Cave dating to the Later Stone Age included ostrich eggshell beads, thin bone arrowhead points, wooden digging sticks, a gummy substance called pitch that was used to haft, or attach, bone and stone blades to shafts and a lump of beeswax likely used for hafting. The assemblage also included worked tusks of members of the pig family, which likely were used to plane wood, and notched bones that may have been used for counting. A wooden digging stick from Border Cave dated to about 40,000 years ago was found in association with bored but broken stones likely used to weight such sticks. The sticks and stone weights are similar to digging implements used by women of the prehistoric San hunter-gatherer culture in the region to unearth bulbs and termite larvae, a practice that continued into historic times, said Villa. A paper on the subject has been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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