November 7, 2012

Advanced lithic tech 70,000 years ago in South Africa

A new paper argues for the importance of ill-researched early African stone technologies in human techno-cultural evolution, based mostly on the heat-treated microlithic technology used at Pinnacle Point and its persistence through time. 

Kyle S. Brown et al., An early and enduring advanced technology originating 71,000 years ago in South Africa. Nature 2012. Pay per view ··> LINK [doi:10.1038/nature11660]


There is consensus that the modern human lineage appeared in Africa before 100,000 years ago1, 2. But there is debate as to when cultural and cognitive characteristics typical of modern humans first appeared, and the role that these had in the expansion of modern humans out of Africa3. Scientists rely on symbolically specific proxies, such as artistic expression, to document the origins of complex cognition. Advanced technologies with elaborate chains of production are also proxies, as these often demand high-fidelity transmission and thus language. Some argue that advanced technologies in Africa appear and disappear and thus do not indicate complex cognition exclusive to early modern humans in Africa3, 4. The origins of composite tools and advanced projectile weapons figure prominently in modern human evolution research, and the latter have been argued to have been in the exclusive possession of modern humans5, 6. Here we describe a previously unrecognized advanced stone tool technology from Pinnacle Point Site 5–6 on the south coast of South Africa, originating approximately 71,000 years ago. This technology is dominated by the production of small bladelets (microliths) primarily from heat-treated stone. There is agreement that microlithic technology was used to create composite tool components as part of advanced projectile weapons7, 8. Microliths were common worldwide by the mid-Holocene epoch, but have a patchy pattern of first appearance that is rarely earlier than 40,000 years ago9, 10, and were thought to appear briefly between 65,000 and 60,000 years ago in South Africa and then disappear. Our research extends this record to ~71,000years, shows that microlithic technology originated early in South Africa, evolved over a vast time span (~11,000years), and was typically coupled to complex heat treatment that persisted for nearly 100,000years. Advanced technologies in Africa were early and enduring; a small sample of excavated sites in Africa is the best explanation for any perceived ‘flickering’ pattern.

Supplementary materials (PDF) are freely available.

Supplementary Figure 2. Artifacts including crescent shaped backed blades (A-L) and notched blades (M-U) from the DBCS at PP5-6 show affinities with the Howiesons Poort industry. Backed blades are oriented with backed edge up and unmodified edge down. Notched blades are oriented parallel with axis of flake removal.


  1. several comments:
    1: It's too especulative. They don't show any proof of microliths been used efectivelly as weapons (they don't show any impact scar, fracture or micro-wear related with weapon use).
    2: They are not SO micro. Some of the blades reach 3cm length and more than 1 cm width. Some of the Mousterian points used as weapon tips in European Late Middle Paleolithic have the same dimensions.
    3: Composite weapons are not only related with microliths. Hafted tools were probably used also in MP (see Roots work).
    4: They don't explain why it is so important to asses "modernity". they say: "Advanced technologies with elaborate chains of production are also proxies, as these often demand high-fidelity transmission and thus language" this can be applied easily for Middle Paleolithic
    5: They don't show any picture o description of cores,nor demonstrate that heating technology is really present.
    6: This phrase is too epic: "Microlith-tipped projectile weapons increased hunting success rate, reduced injury from hunting encounters gone wrong, extended the effective range of lethal interpersonal violence29, and would have conferred substantive advantages on modern humans as they left Africa and encountered Neanderthals equipped with only hand-cast spears." How can they relate South African things with things that happened in Europe more than 30 kyr after? Why there is no evidence of such microlith technology in Levant?
    7: This is disturbing: " the need to study materials recovered from the smallest sieve fractions" They don't do it??

    In my opinion a bad paper trying to surf in the wave of Modernity, Neanderthals, Weapons etc

    1. I haven't got access to the paper so far (only to the supp. materials and abstract) so I can't judge. Probably some of what you say is a very valid criticism, however re. point #3, I understand that a composite weapon (or tool) is not the same as a merely hafted one but one in which different small blades or other pieces form part (through a haft or handle) of a larger tool/weapon. The typical example would be the Aztec swords or macuahuitl or the similar Taino ones or macanas.

      Re. point #5, the heating technology was studied years ago also at Pinnacle Point: see this blog note and this news entry. I'll add it to the "see also" section because it seems relevant. It's probably implicit in the bibliography.

      A related research at Blombos found the first known use of pressure retouch similar to Solutrean.

  2. Atlatl darts and arrows wobble, blowgun darts don't, allowing precision shooting in very dense foliage.

    Pure speculation: Poison darts were the preferred norm, but coastal people developed heat-treated microlith projectiles to kill (semi)aquatic animals that had unusual blood/respiration (high hemoglobin, myoglobin) systems virtually immune to poisons allowing escapes.


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