Letter | Published:

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

Nature volume 491, pages 590593 (22 November 2012) | Download Citation

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Abstract

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 71,000 years, shows that microlithic technology originated early in South Africa, evolved over a vast time span (11,000 years), and was typically coupled to complex heat treatment that persisted for nearly 100,000 years. 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.

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Acknowledgements

We thank the MAPCRM staff for their assistance, the Dias Museum for field facilities, and SAHRA and HWC for permits. This research was funded by the National Science Foundation (grants BCS-9912465, BCS-0130713, BCS-0524087 and BCS-1138073 to C.W.M.), the Hyde Family Foundation, the Institute of Human Origins (IHO), and the Australian Research Council (DP1092843 to Z.J.).

Author information

Affiliations

  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

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Contributions

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.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Curtis W. Marean.

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

Supplementary information

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  1. 1.

    Supplementary Information

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

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https://doi.org/10.1038/nature11660

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