An early and enduring advanced technology originating 71,000 years ago in South Africa

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There is consensus that the modern human lineage appeared in Africa before 100,000 years ago1, 2. But there is debate as to when cultural and cognitive characteristics typical of modern humans first appeared, and the role that these had in the expansion of modern humans out of Africa3. Scientists rely on symbolically specific proxies, such as artistic expression, to document the origins of complex cognition. Advanced technologies with elaborate chains of production are also proxies, as these often demand high-fidelity transmission and thus language. Some argue that advanced technologies in Africa appear and disappear and thus do not indicate complex cognition exclusive to early modern humans in Africa3, 4. The origins of composite tools and advanced projectile weapons figure prominently in modern human evolution research, and the latter have been argued to have been in the exclusive possession of modern humans5, 6. Here we describe a previously unrecognized advanced stone tool technology from Pinnacle Point Site 5–6 on the south coast of South Africa, originating approximately 71,000 years ago. This technology is dominated by the production of small bladelets (microliths) primarily from heat-treated stone. There is agreement that microlithic technology was used to create composite tool components as part of advanced projectile weapons7, 8. Microliths were common worldwide by the mid-Holocene epoch, but have a patchy pattern of first appearance that is rarely earlier than 40,000 years ago9, 10, and were thought to appear briefly between 65,000 and 60,000 years ago in South Africa and then disappear. Our research extends this record to ~71,000years, shows that microlithic technology originated early in South Africa, evolved over a vast time span (~11,000years), and was typically coupled to complex heat treatment that persisted for nearly 100,000years. Advanced technologies in Africa were early and enduring; a small sample of excavated sites in Africa is the best explanation for any perceived ‘flickering’ pattern.

At a glance


  1. Segment dimensions from PP5-6 and selected late Pleistocene and Holocene sites.
    Figure 1: Segment dimensions from PP5–6 and selected late Pleistocene and Holocene sites.

    Mean and error bars showing 95% confidence intervals for segment dimensions were calculated for segment length, width and thickness using published sample mean ( ), standard deviation (s) and sample count (n) values from selected African assemblages. The equation for calculating the 95% confidence interval is: , in which t0.05 is the value at probability 0.05 at (n1) degrees of freedom from a two-tailed t-table. The values for t0.05 were calculated using the TINV function in Microsoft Excel. Sources for data described are in Supplementary Information.

  2. PP5-6 stratigraphic aggregates.
    Figure 2: PP5–6 stratigraphic aggregates.

    Photomosaic of the upper 8m of stratigraphy (top), total station plotted OSL sample locations (middle) and locations and association of total station plotted microlithic segments (bottom). Age superscript corresponds to superscript with sample codes presented in Supplementary Table 5. The excavated archaeological deposit extends below what is depicted in the figure.

  3. PP5-6 microlithic tools.
    Figure 3: PP5–6 microlithic tools.

    al, Representative images of PP5–6 segments from the DBCS (HP; ae) and SADBS (fk), showing differences in size and shape, and fine flaking of the backed edge (l) on a segment from the OBS1. Backed blades are oriented with the backed edge up and the unmodified edge down. m, The average shape for each stratigraphic aggregate is shown scaled to the average maximum (avg. max.) length (DBCS on the left, SADBS on the right). The artefact plotted find numbers (project specimen numbers) are 121094 (a), 133878 (b), 266888 (c), 280295 (d), 266287 (e), 107536 (f), 259888 (g), 312237 (h), 151511 (i), 272915 (j), 155127 (k) and 177975 (l).


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Author information


  1. Department of Archaeology, University of Cape Town, Rondebosch 7701, South Africa

    • Kyle S. Brown
  2. Institute of Human Origins, School of Human Evolution and Social Change, PO Box 872402, Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona 85287-4101, USA

    • Kyle S. Brown,
    • Curtis W. Marean,
    • Benjamin J. Schoville,
    • Simen Oestmo,
    • Erich C. Fisher &
    • Jocelyn Bernatchez
  3. Centre for Archaeological Science, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Wollongong, Wollongong 2522, Australia

    • Zenobia Jacobs
  4. Ephoreia of Palaeoanthropology-Speleology of Southern Greece, Ardittou 34b, 11636 Athens, Greece

    • Panagiotis Karkanas
  5. Department of Natural History, Iziko South African Museum, PO Box 61, Cape Town 8000, South Africa

    • Thalassa Matthews


K.S.B. led the lithic analysis and with C.W.M. took the lead in writing the paper; J.B. contributed to the site analysis; E.C.F. conducted the GIS analysis and photomosaic construction; C.W.M. is the project director and an excavation permit co-holder; S.O. contributed to the lithic analysis; B.J.S. contributed to the lithic analysis and conducted the morphometric analysis; Z.J. conducted the OSL dating; P.K. studied the sedimentology and geology of the site; T.M. is an excavation permit co-holder and contributes to palaeoenvironmental studies; and J.B., K.S.B., E.C.F., C.W.M., S.O. and B.J.S. all contributed substantially to the excavations. All authors contributed to the writing of the paper.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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The data reported in this paper are tabulated in the Supplementary Information and archived at Arizona State University.

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  1. Supplementary Information (1.8M)

    This file contains Supplementary Discussions, Supplementary Methods, Supplementary Figures 1-10, Supplementary Tables 1-7 and additional references.

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