Ostrich eggshell beads from Border Cave, which show similar manufacturing techniques as those used by Kalahari San women, including shaping using a horn or bone and stone anvil. Picture: Lucinda Backwell

Cape Town - Startling finds by an international research team at a cave in KwaZulu-Natal have more than doubled the age of the earliest evidence of the lifestyle of San hunter-gatherers in Southern Africa.

They have dated the evidence of the hunter-gatherers’ modern behaviour that includes the first known sophisticated use of poison on arrow tips and making notches on bones as a counting aid to 44 000 years ago – from the 10 000 or at most 20 000 years previously accepted.

The research team was led by Professor Francesco d’Errico, director of research at the French National Research Centre, and included scientists from SA, France, Italy, Norway, the US and Britain.

Their findings were published last night in two online articles in the prestigious journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

One of the papers, Early Evidence of San Material Culture Represented by Organic Artifacts from Border Cave, South Africa was co-authored by Wits University academics Dr Lucinda Backwell, a senior researcher in palaeoanthropology, and Professor Marion Bamford, a palaeobotanist at the Bernard Price Institute for Paleontological Research.

Border Cave is one of a suite of six sites that SA is planning to ask the UN to acknowledge as a new World Heritage Site celebrating the critically important role that local sites have played in the development of modern humans over the past 200 000 years.

The cave is in the Lebombo mountains with spectacular views over Swaziland. A complete skeleton of an infant and remains of at least five adult hominims (human ancestors) have been found here, as well as the remains of more than 40 mammal species, three of which are now extinct.

The site has also yielded exceptionally well-preserved organic material, according to a Wits University press release.

“The dating and analysis of archaeological material discovered at Border Cave has allowed us to demonstrate that many elements of material culture that characterise the lifestyle of San hunter-gatherers in Southern Africa, were part of the culture and technology of the inhabitants of this site 44 000 years ago,” Backwell explained.


Their results showed “without a doubt” that, at this time, people at Border Cave were using digging sticks weighted with perforated stones, like those traditionally used by the San.

“They adorned themselves with ostrich egg and many marine shell beads, and notched bones for notational purposes.

“They fashioned fine bone points for use as awls and poisoned arrowheads. One point is decorated with a spiral groove filled with red ochre, which closely parallels similar marks that San make to identify their arrowheads when hunting,” Backwell said.

Also, chemical analysis of residues on a wooden stick decorated with incisions revealed that, like San objects used for the same purpose, it had been used to hold and carry a poison containing ricinoleic acid found in castor beans. This represented the earliest evidence for the use of poison.

Another discovery was a lump of beeswax, mixed with the resin of toxic Euphorbia, and possibly egg, that had been wrapped in vegetal fibres made from the inner bark of a woody plant.


The second paper was titled Border Cave and the Beginning of the Later Stone Age in South Africa. - Cape Argus