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Wednesday, 7 November, 2001, 16:35 GMT
Early clues to 'modern' humans
Early humans, BBC Walking With Beasts
Modern humans descended from African hominids
A collection of bone tools dating back 70,000 years is raising new questions about human evolution.

The discovery suggests that our early human ancestors were far more sophisticated than previously thought.

The bone tools and flaked stone points, possibly used as spear heads, were found in a cave on the South African coast, east of Stillbaai.

What has been suggested up until now is that modern human behaviour was a very late occurrence
Christopher Henshilwood, archaeologist
Until now, it was assumed that humans were not advanced enough to make such tools until long after they had emerged from Africa and migrated into Europe.

The appearance of bone, rather than stone tools, and signs of abstract and creative thought in the form of body decoration and art works appeared in Europe about 35,000 years ago.

But according to new evidence, published in the Journal of Human Evolution, ancient humans were already making bone tools in Africa more than twice as long ago.

The implications are that humans came out of Africa with fully developed "modern" technology and modes of behaviour.

'Modern' behaviour

Royden Yates, one of the team that discovered the tools, told the BBC: "Every indication that we have been able to gather suggests that we are looking at something between 80 and 100,000 years old.

"Artefacts very similar to this occur in Europe and they are dated to about 19,000 years ago."

Graphic, BBC
The collection of 28 bone tools and related artefacts were found in Blombos cave, located on a cliff overlooking the Indian Ocean at the extreme tip of South Africa.

A yellow sand layer lying above the sediment containing the tools is thought to date to 60,000-70,000 years ago. The tools were found below the sand layer and are thought to be somewhat older.

Bone tools need a high degree of skill and labour to produce, which is why archaeologists consider them a significant indicator of human development.

New horizons

According to archaeologist Christopher Henshilwood, of the Iziko-South African Museum in Cape Town, the tools show that people in Africa exhibited "modern" behaviour as far back as 80-100,000 years ago.

"What has been suggested up until now is that modern human behaviour was a very late occurrence," he said.

"The implication was that though people were anatomically modern in Africa from about 150,000 to 100,000 years ago, they remained behaviourally non-modern until about 40,000 or 50 000 years ago, when they suddenly changed and then moved into Europe and elsewhere."

There have been a few claims of equally old bone tools found at other African sites, such as in the Democratic Republic of Congo. But these have been either single finds or of doubtful authenticity.

However, while Europe has been extensively excavated, many sites in Africa have yet to be examined closely.

This find may mark the beginning of a new understanding of the human fossil record.

The main image on this page comes from the BBC's forthcoming series Walking With Beasts

See also:

03 Mar 00 | Sci/Tech
Asia's oldest axe tools discovered
06 May 99 | Sci/Tech
Ancient 'tool factory' uncovered
11 May 00 | Sci/Tech
Fossils may be 'first Europeans'
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