Poison proves humans used tools 20,000 years earlier than we thought

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Dec 17, 2012

Sometimes you think you know something about the dawn of man, and then a single archaeological discovery changes everything. In this case, scientists have found a cave in South Africa that suggests that the late Stone Age occurred about 20,000 years earlier than we previously thought. Among their finds: what could be the first use of poison in human history.

The discovery came at a site on the border between South Africa and Swaziland known as Border Cave. Many of the finds in the cave, including bone tools and carved beads, have been discovered before. But using the latest dating technology, archaeologists have discovered that these artifacts are actually about 40,000 years old, more than 20,000 years older than previous finds thought to mark the dawn of the Later Stone Age.

"Our research proves that the Later Stone Age emerged in South Africa far earlier than has been believed and occurred at about the same time as the arrival of modern humans in Europe," said Paola Villa, a researcher and curator at the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History.

The finds aren't the oldest ever. Some tools have dated back as far as 60,000 years, but these finds do demonstrate that Stone Age technology in Africa progressed far differently than previously thought. The most interesting thing, though, is the poison.

Sharp bone points thought to be used as arrowheads have also been uncovered at Border Cave, along with beeswax that might have been used to attach the arrowheads to arrow shafts. At 35,000 years old, this is the first known use of beeswax as a tool. Also among the artifacts was a thin stick that had traces of a natural poison called ricinoleic acid. This, combined with scratches on the stick, suggest it was used to apply poison to arrowheads. The applicator dates to 20,000 years ago, making it the first use of poison on record.

"The work by d'Errico and colleagues [published alongside Villa's group's report in the same journal] shows that the points are very similar in width and thickness to the bone points produced by San culture that occupied the region in prehistoric times, whose people were known to use bows and arrows with poison-tipped bone points as a way to bring down medium- and large-sized herbivores," Villa said.

The Border Cave discoveries represent a number of exciting new possibilities for archaeologists, among them Villa's theory that such tool use could actually date as far back as 60,000 years. But the coolest find by far is the poison. It seems that even 20 millennia ago we were fighting to make our big game hunting easier.

(Via Huffington Post)

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