Thursday 14 December 2017

Hunter gatherer links found in South African cave

John von Radowitz

SOUTH Africa's oldest inhabitants may have invented "modern" hunter-gatherer culture 44,000 years ago, new research suggests.

The San people, who live across southern Africa, have a lifestyle that has not changed for many thousands of years.

Scientists now believe their culture is older than anyone imagined and may have given birth to the first hunter-gatherer society recognisable today.

Researchers studied and dated a range of objects recovered from Border Cave in the foothills of the Lebombo mountains in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.

The results, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, show that people living at the site were using tools and techniques typical of the San as long as 44,000 years ago.

Until now, the oldest traces of San culture were widely thought to date back 10,000, or at most, 20,000 years.

The objects included notched bones, wooden digging sticks, bone awls, bone arrowhead points and bead and shell ornaments.

A wooden stick used to apply poison to arrow heads was also found that retained toxic residues derived from castor beans.

In addition, researchers discovered a beeswax and plant resin mixture thought to have been used for hafting a handle to a tool or weapon.

Dated to 40,000 years ago, it provides the oldest-known evidence of the use of beeswax.

Dr Lucinda Blackwell, from the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, said: "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.

"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."

Although much older use of tools has been documented in South Africa, dating back 75,000 years, it seems to have been short-lived, dying out by 60,000 years ago.

The objects from Border Cave were "modern" in the sense that they were still being used by present day hunter-gatherers, said the researchers.

"The organic artefacts from the upper layers of Border Cave represent arguably the oldest instance of modern culture," they wrote.

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