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Start date for human civilization moved back 20,000 years or so

An analysis of artifacts found in a South African cave reveals that humans were making tools, beads, and even poison some 20,000 years earlier than previously thought.

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Border Cave in South Africa was occupied by humans for tens of thousands of years.

Courtesy Paola Villa, University of Colorado

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The late Stone Age may have had an earlier start in Africa than previously thought — by some 20,000 years.

A new analysis of artifacts from a cave in South Africa reveals that the residents were carving bone tools, using pigments, making beads and even using poison 44,000 years ago. These sorts of artifacts had previously been linked to the San culture, which was thought to have emerged around 20,000 years ago.

"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," study researcher Paola Villa, a curator at the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History, said in a statement.

The Later Stone Age in Africa occurred at the same time as Europe's Upper Paleolithic Period, when modern humans moved into Europe from Africa and met the Neanderthals about 45,000 years ago.

"[T]he differences in technology and culture between the two areas are very strong, showing the people of the two regions chose very different paths to the evolution of technology and society," Villa said. [10 Mysteries of the First Humans]

Hints of culture

Traces of civilization have been found going back nearly 80,000 years in Africa, but these fragments — bone tools, carved beads — vanish from the archaeological record by about 60,000 years ago.

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