The Origins of Modern Culture

A 44,000-year-old collection of wood and bone tools from South Africa may be the earliest example of modern culture, a new study suggests

Organic tools found at South Africa’s Border Cave
Organic tools found at South Africa’s Border Cave include (a) wooden digging sticks, (b) poison applicator, (c) bone arrow point, (d) notched bones, (e) lump of beeswax mixed with resin and (f) beads made from marine shells and ostrich eggs. Francesco d’Errico and Lucinda Backwell

Among the people living in South Africa today, the earliest residents were the San (known as Bushmen to early European colonists). Archaeologists thought the first signs of San culture emerged about 20,000 years ago. But now an analysis of organic artifacts from South Africa’s Border Cave indicate San origins go back even further to at least 44,000 years ago—and may represent the earliest example of modern culture.

A team led by Francesco d’Errico, an archaeologist at the University of Bordeaux in France, considered artifacts in cave layers dating from about 44,000 to 22,000 years ago. They looked at modified warthog and bushpig tusks, notched bones used in counting, bone tools such as awls decorated with pigments, beads made from ostrich eggs and marine shells, wooden digging sticks, a wooden stick used to apply poisons to arrowheads and a lump of beeswax mixed with resin (and possibly egg) likely used as an adhesive in hafting. All of these artifacts resemble those used by San people today, the researchers report in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The researchers also say these artifacts may be “arguably the oldest instance of modern culture.” Yet, many of the tools in this collection appeared much earlier than 44,000 years ago.  The oldest shell beads, for example, are 77,000 years old. The use of red ochre is even older, dating to 164,000 years ago. So what’s going on?

Last month, d’Errico explained to Smithsonian that aspects of  modern human behavior and culture do appear early on but then disappear from the archaeological record for tens of thousands of years before reappearing again and becoming a permanent part of human culture. He noted that a variety of factors could explain this discontinuous pattern of development. Climate change or environmental variability might have affected human behavior, and population crashes might have prevented the proper transmission of cultural innovations to later generations, he said. So, based on this reasoning, the  44,000-year-old artifacts from Border Cave may be called the earliest example of modern culture because they are the oldest complete set of tools that match those still used by people today.

Other archaeologists don’t interpret the archaeological record this way, instead seeing a more gradual, continuous evolution of behavior and culture over the past 200,000 years. Part of the disagreement stems from the fact that  there’s no universally agreed upon definition of what constitutes “modern culture.” Another problem is that the emergence of modern human behavior is often thought of in terms of cognitive advancements, so archaeologists must also agree on how such mental abilities correspond with the material artifacts left behind in the archaeological record. For example, what sort of cognitive thinking is involved in making and using a bow and arrow or a beaded necklace or storing paint for use later? Quibbles will remain until these issues are resolved.

For a deeper look at the issues, read “When Did the Human Mind Evolve to What It is Today?

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