SA fossils: Modern culture much older

2012-07-30 22:33
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Johannesburg - Researchers say new South African fossil finds show modern culture emerged about 30 000 years earlier there than previously thought.

Two articles published on Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences say the items found, including poison-tipped arrows and jewellery, are characteristic of the San hunter-gatherers. Their descendants live today in southern Africa.

Carbon dating of the new findings show the San culture goes back as far as 44 000 years instead the previous estimate of somewhere between 10 000 and 20 000 years.

Researchers also say these items have clear uses and can be traced forward to modern culture.

South African researcher Lucinda Backwell says the findings are the earliest known instances of "modern behaviour as we know it." Backwell says the discovery also reinforces that modern humans originate from southern Africa.

Poisoned-tipped arrows and jewelry made of ostrich egg beads show modern culture may have emerged years earlier in the area than previously thought.

The find, discovered at Border Cave close to South Africa's northeastern border with Swaziland, is a comprehensive package of hunting kits and jewellery made of ostrich egg and marine shell beads.

Backwell, who was part of the team of international researchers that made the find, said the artefacts created as many as 44 000 years ago served the same purposes as they would today.

"They all have a specific reason we understand, that's why we can name them," Backwell said.

Symbolic behaviour

The researchers' articles said the Border Cave people used poisoned arrows to hunt and put spiral engraving on arrowheads to indicate ownership. The latter practice has been preserved in the San culture, they said.

Professor Francesco d'Errico of the French National Research Centre, who led the research team, said that the findings tell of a people who were highly evolved.

"They were fully modern genetically and cognitively," d'Errico said.

Their cognitive development is evident in their symbolic behaviour, the professor said. The ostrich egg beads were not only ornaments, but played a major role in bartering with neighbouring groups, he said. That practice continues today.

The paper claimed that the fossils show that all modern culture came from southern Africa, though the researchers acknowledged it remains difficult to pinpoint where in history that modernity began.

Eric Delson, a palaeoanthropologist at Lehman College of the City University of New York, said that while the testing used by the researchers to determine the age of the fossils was very clear and reliable, the findings didn't support the idea that all modern human cultures are connected to this find.

He said there is evidence that a modern culture already existed in Europe around the time the new find is dated.

"They say, 'Modern human behaviour first found!'" Delson said. "Well, not exactly."

He did, however, applaud the research for finding the origins of one specific group of modern people.

Scientists from Britain, France, Italy, Norway, South Africa and the US all took part in the research, run by the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

- SAPA

Read more on:    south africa  |  archaeology  |  anthropology
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