Thursday, November 8, 2012

Oldest Arrowheads Hint at How Modern Humans Overtook Neandertals

Tiny stone blades from Pinnacle Point Cave 5-6 in South Africa that once tipped arrows or darts represent the oldest known projectile weapons. Image: Simen Oestmo

Archaeologists excavating a cave on the southern coast of South Africa have recovered remains of the oldest known projectile weapons. The tiny stone blades, which were probably affixed to wooden shafts for use as arrows, date to 71,000 years ago and represent a sophisticated technological tradition that endured for thousands of years. The discovery bears on an abiding question about when and how modern human cognition emerged, and suggests a way by which early modern Homo sapiens outcompeted Neandertals to eventually become the last human species standing.

Fossils show that humans who basically looked like us had evolved by around 200,000 years ago. Yet based on the cultural stuff they left behind, it looked as though anatomically modern humans didn’t begin thinking like us until much later. And when the creative spark did eventually ignite, the flame flickered only briefly before fizzling, only to spark and fade again and again as populations died out, taking their innovations to the grave. Projectile weapon technology, for example, seemed to make a brief first appearance sometime between 65,000 and 60,000 years ago and didn’t stick until after 40,000 years ago. But whether this flickering pattern in the archaeological record is real or merely an artifact of the small number of sites excavated has been unclear. The new South African finds, which come from a site called Pinnacle Point 5 – 6 (PP5-6), support the latter scenario.

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