Ronald Cole-Turner: Transcending Evolution

Credit: Simen Oestmo

Better Technology, Better Weapons

Ongoing archaeological discoveries from coastal South Africa point consistently to a technological and cultural explosion occurring there more than 70,000 years ago. The latest paper, appearing in the November 7 issue of the journal Nature, fills in more detail about remarkable advances in stone tool technology that only appear in Europe some 50,000 years later.

The new findings, reported by an international team of researchers led by Curtis Marean, help fill in a more comprehensive picture of the culture that flourished on the coast of South Africa for thousands of years. In 2009, Marean's team published a report showing how the controlled use of fire played a key role in the engineering of stone tools. The 2012 paper provides evidence that this technology was used for at least 11,000 years by the inhabitants of the coast.

"Eleven thousand years of continuity is, in reality, an almost unimaginable time span for people to consistently make tools the same way," said Marean. "This is certainly not a flickering pattern."

One possibility suggested by this research is that the 70,000-year-old technology found in South Africa was brought out of Africa by modern humans. If so, it may help explain why Neanderthals disappeared as modern humans entered Europe and Asia. Advances in technology made it possible to create lightweight points for spears or arrows, mostly likely used for small spears launched by spear-throwing devices known as atlatls, which effectively extend the length of the throwing arm.

"When Africans left Africa and entered Neanderthal territory they had projectiles with greater killing reach, and these early moderns probably also had higher levels of pro-social (hyper-cooperative) behavior. These two traits were a knockout punch. Combine them, as modern humans did and still do, and no prey or competitor is safe," said Marean. "This probably laid the foundation for the expansion out of Africa of modern humans and the extinction of many prey as well as our sister species such as Neanderthals."

If there is any truth to this conjecture, it is a sobering truth. This technological advance makes it easier to kill.

The new paper reports on findings at the Pinnacle Point excavation site, a mere 50 miles or so from Blombos cave, home to similar findings and to the first "chemical engineering laboratory" for the production of the pigment ochre. Whoever lived there was technologically and culturally advanced, with all the ambiguities that implies.

A version of this post first appeared on Enhancing Theology.

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