Modern culture 44 000 years ago

By Wits University

31 July 2012

Organic artefacts from Border Cave a) Wooden digging stick made from Flueggea virosa and dated 40,986 - 38,986 cal BP, b) Wooden poison applicator made from Flueggea virosa dated to 24,564 - 23,941 cal BP and preserving a residue containing poisonous ricinoleic acid found in castor beans, c) Bone arrow point decorated with a spiral incision filled with red pigment, d) Bone object with four sets of notches, each made by a different tool, and probably used for notational purposes, e) Lump of beeswax containing Euphorbia tirucalli resin and possibly egg, bound with vegetal twine and dated 41,167 - 39,194 cal BP, f) Ostrich eggshell beads dated 44,856 - 41,010 cal BP and marine shell beads used as personal ornaments. Scale bars = 1 cm. An international team of researchers, including scientists from Wits University, have substantially increased the age at which we can trace the emergence of modern culture, all thanks to the San people of Africa. 

The research by the team, consisting of scientists from South Africa, France, Italy, Norway, the USA and Britain, was published in two articles online in the prestigious journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, on Monday, 30 July 2012.

The paper titled Early evidence of San material culture represented by organic artifacts from Border Cave, South Africa was authored by Francesco d’Errico, Lucinda Backwell, Paola Villa, Ilaria Degano, Jeannette Lucejko, Marion Bamford, Thomas Higham, Maria Perla Colombini, and Peter Beaumont. To read the full paper, click here.

Doctor Backwell is a senior researcher in palaeoanthropology, and Professor Bamford a palaeobotanist at the Bernard Price Institute for Paleontological Research at Wits University.

“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,” says Backwell. 

A key question in human evolution is when in prehistory human cultures similar to ours emerged? Until now, most archaeologists believed that the oldest traces of San hunter-gatherer culture in southern Africa dates back 10,000, or at most 20,000 years. 

The international team of researchers, led by Francesco d’Errico, Director of Research at the French National Research Centre, dated and directly analysed objects from archaeological layers at Border Cave.

Click here to watch a podcast of D'Errico and Backwell explaining what their research have shown.

Ostrich eggshell beads from Border Cave dated 44,856 - 41,010 cal BP, which show similar production techniques as those used by Kalahari San women, including  b) Shaping using a horn and stone anvil,  c) Drilling to produce perforations, d) stringing with vegetal twine and  e) Smoothing with a grooved stone. Located in the foothills of the Lebombo Mountains in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, the site has yielded exceptionally well-preserved organic material. 

Backwell says their results have shown without a doubt that at around 44,000 years ago the people at Border Cave were using digging sticks weighted with perforated stones, like those traditionally used by the San. 

“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,” says Backwell.

Chemical analysis of residues on a wooden stick decorated with incisions reveals that, like San objects used for the same purpose, it was used to hold and carry a poison containing ricinoleic acid found in castor beans. This represents the earliest evidence for the use of poison. 

A lump of beeswax, mixed with the resin of toxic Euphorbia, and possibly egg, was wrapped in vegetal fibres made from the inner bark of a woody plant. “This complex compound used for hafting arrowheads or tools, directly dated to 40,000 years ago, is the oldest known evidence of the use of beeswax,” says Backwell. 

Warthog tusks were shaped into awls and possibly spear heads. The use of small pieces of stone to arm hunting weapons is confirmed by the discovery of resin residue still adhering to some of the tools, which chemical analysis has identified as a suberin (waxy substance) produced from the sap of Podocarpus (yellowwood) trees. 

The study of stone tools discovered in the same archaeological layers as the organic remains, and from older deposits, shows a gradual evolution in stone tool technology. Organic artifacts, unambiguously reminiscent of San material culture, appear relatively abruptly, highlighting an apparent mismatch in rates of cultural change. This finding supports the view that what we perceive today as “modern behaviour” is the result of non-linear trajectories that may be better understood when documented at a regional scale. 

Another paper, titled Border Cave and the Beginning of the Later Stone Age in South Africa will also be published today. The authors are Paola Villa, Sylvain Soriano, Tsenka Tsanova, Ilaria Degano, Thomas Higham, Francesco d’Errico, Lucinda Backwell, Jeannette J. Luceiko, Maria Perla Colombini and Peter Beaumont.


Lucinda BackwellDoctor Lucinda Backwell, (MSc)(PhD) (Witwatersrand and Bordeaux): Palaeoanthropologist

Backwell’s research interest focuses on the evolution of hominin cultural behaviour and cognition, prehistoric bone tool technology, ethnoarchaeology amongst Kalahari Bushmen hunter-gatherers, origins of ritual mortuary practices. Lucinda gives introductory courses on human evolution and taphonomy to geology, zoology and Honours students, and supervises postgraduates on various topics, mostly relating to the taphonomy of fossil assemblages from caves in the Cradle of Humankind.

Professor Marion K. Bamford, (PhD): Research Officer and Deputy Director of the BPI at Wits

Bamford’s research interests have included the Permian Glossopteris flora, the Lower Cretaceous flora from the Kirkwood Formation in the Eastern Cape Province, and the Middle Cretaceous angiosperm flora from Orapa in Botswana. Her main emphasis now is on fossil woods from southern Africa, including its taxonomy, palaeoecology and dating. Fossil wood from the Karoo deposits (Permian and Triassic) is being studied in order to establish a biostratigraphic scheme. Cretaceous and Tertiary woods are studied for dating, palaeoecology and palaeobiogeography. She has also studied fossil woods from a Pliocene hominid cave deposit, Sterkfontein, for palaeoclimatic interpretations. She gives classes to Geology and Botany students on palaeobotany, as part of the general Palaeontology courses.


Dr Lucinda Backwell

Cell: 27 76 382 97 70


Prof. Marion Bamford (Note to journalists: She is currently in East Africa)


Francesco d’Errico with San digging sticks from the Fourie Collection (Museum Africa, Johannesburg). Prof. Francesco d’Errico

Cell: 33 5 40 00 26 28; 33 6 04 15 54 54



Issued by:

Erna van Wyk, Communications Officer, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.

For images, background material or video clips, contact:

Tel: 27 11 717 4023                 




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