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Recent archaeological discoveries have revealed that pigment use,
beads, engravings, and sophisticated stone and bone tools were
already present in southern Africa 75,000 y ago. Many of these
artifacts disappeared by 60,000 y ago, suggesting that modern
behavior appeared in the past and was subsequently lost before
becoming firmly established.
“The dating and analysis of archaeological material discovered at Border Cave in South Africa, 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,”
The artifacts revealed uses and practices very similar to that of modern San applications. Some of them:
•Digging sticks weighted with perforated stones, dated to about 44,000 years ago;
•A wooden stick decorated with incisions, used to hold and carry a poison containing ricinoleic acid found in castor beans;
•Dated to about 40,000 years ago, a lump of beeswax, mixed with the resin of toxic Euphorbia, and possibly egg, wrapped in vegetal fibres made from the inner bark of a woody plant. Like the modern San equivalent, it was likely used for hafting arrowheads or tools;
•Warthog tusks shaped into awls and possibly spear heads; and
•Small pieces of stone for hunting weapons, confirmed by the discovery of resin residue still adhering to some of the tools, identified as a suberin (waxy substance) produced from the sap of Podocarpus (yellowwood) trees.
Organic Artefacts from Border Cave
a) Wooden digging stick made from Flueggea virosa and dated 40,986 - 38,986 cal BP,
b) Wooden poison applicator made from Flueggea virosa dated to 24,564 - 23,941 cal BP and preserving a residue containing poisonous ricinoleic acid found in castor beans,
c) Bone arrow point decorated with a spiral incision filled with red pigment,
d) Bone object with four sets of notches, each made by a different tool, and probably used for notational purposes,
e) Lump of beeswax containing Euphorbia tirucalli resin and possibly egg, bound with vegetal twine and dated 41,167 - 39,194 cal BP,
f) Ostrich eggshell beads dated 44,856 - 41,010 cal BP and marine shell beads used as personal ornaments. Scale bars = 1 cm.
Poison Applicator. A thin wooden stick in four pieces was found in
layer 1BS Lower B-C (Fig. 2, 26; and Table 1). Together, they
measure 32 cm. The original object was longer, as they do not
refit. After removal of the bark, the stick was entirely covered
with perpendicular incisions made by a sharp cutting edge. As
with the digging stick, the wood is identified as most likely
F. virosa (SI Appendix, Results and Fig. S19). Efforts to corroborate
the taxonomic identification by Py(HMDS)–gas chromatography/
mass spectrometry were inconclusive (SI Appendix,
Results, Fig. S20, and Table S6). Microscopic analysis revealed
the presence of a dark orange residue at the end and, to a lesser
extent, on the body of one piece (SI Appendix, Results and Fig.
S21). Gas chromatography of the residue (Fig. 2, 27; and SI
Appendix, Results and Table S7) shows the presence of monocarboxylic
and dicarboxylic acids (lipid material). The occurrence
of both cis and trans isomers of unsaturated carboxylic acids
suggests that the material was heated, and the simultaneous
presence of even- and odd-chain-length hydrocarbons points to
the presence of cuticular wax (49). Ricinoleic and ricinelaidic
acids are present. Ricinoleic acid is found in mature castor beans
(Ricinus communis L., Euphorbiaceae), a species common in this
part of Africa. The protein ricin in castor beans is known to be
among the most dangerous natural poisons (50). The incised
stick may be a broken arrow shaft still retaining poison at one
end. However, for aerodynamic reasons, arrow shafts are typically
straight and smooth.
Let’s look at ricinoleic acid. It systematic name is 12-hydroxy-9-cis-octadecenoic acid. (See this blog entry about the naming of chemical found in plants) It is a fatty acid found in Ricinus communis, castor oil plant, and Claviceps purpurea, ergot fungus. It is present in castor oil. Castor oil is, of course, non-toxic at normal levels. Rats fed castor oil as 10% of their total diet showed no signs of poisoning
New Scientist reported the story by concentrating on what it tells us about evolution. There is no mention of poison or ricinoleic acid
Resins can be exploited as adhesives, but triterpenoids
are also used in high concentrations as poisons and in lower
concentrations medicinally. Euphorbia ingens (naboom or giant
euphorbia) and E. tirucalli (rubber-hedge euphorbia or Manyara),
widely distributed in Africa, have particularly poisonous latex and
seeds. Although very poisonous and used as an insecticide or to kill
fish, E. ingens is also used medicinally, but it can be fatal
The largest genus of family Euphorbiaceae is Euphorbia with about 1600 species. It is characterized by the presence of white milky latex which is more or less toxic. Latices of E. ingens, E. mey, E. tirucalli, and E. triangularis are possible sources of rubber. This group of plants has been a subject of intense phytochemical examination and isolated compounds which include:- flavanoids, triterpenoids, alkanes, amino acids, and alkaloids. E. ipecacuanha is known as wild ipecac; E. antiquorum is known as Tridhara; E. lathyrus is known as caper spurge; and E. thymifolia is known as Laghududhika.
There are many other species of Euphorbia which are used in traditional medicines. All species of Euphorbia exudes a milky juice when broken, which is more or less poisonous and used as an ingredient in arrow poisons. E. hirta possesses antibacterial, anthelmintic, antiasthmatic, sedative, antispasmodic, antifertility, antifungal, and antimalarial properties
By the beginning of the Upper Paleolithic period (50,000 BP (Before Present)), full behavioral modernity, including language, music and other cultural universals had developed. As modern humans spread out from Africa they encountered other hominids such as Homo neanderthalensis and the so-called Denisovans, who may have evolved from populations of Homo erectus that had left Africa already around 2 million years ago. The nature of interaction between early humans and these sister species has been a long standing source of controversy, the question being whether humans replaced these earlier species or whether they were in fact similar enough to interbreed, in which case these earlier populations may have contributed genetic material to modern humans. Recent studies of the Human and Neanderthal genomes suggest gene flow between archaic Homo sapiens and Neanderthals and Denisovans.
This migration out of Africa is estimated to have begun about 70,000 years BP. Modern humans subsequently spread globally, replacing earlier hominins (either through competition or hybridization). They inhabited Eurasia and Oceania by 40,000 years BP, and the Americas at least 14,500 years BP.
Such innovations are used to support a scenario that postulates a causal
connection between the origin of our species in Africa ∼200 ka and
a gradual emergence of modern cultures on that continent. This
model predicts a gradual accretion of cultural innovations in
Africa, which facilitated the spread of our species out of Africa and
the replacement of archaic hominin forms
First, Neanderthals exhibited many complex
behaviors (pigment use, funerary practices, complex hafting
techniques, wood-working, personal ornamentation, and bone tool
manufacture) before or at the very moment of contact with modern
humans (13, 15–18). Second, many of the innovations are only
found at a few sites of a given technocomplex, which makes one
wonder whether they can be considered as integral features of those
cultural systems or just the expressions of local traditions (7, 12).
Third, many of the innovations recorded in Africa and the Near
East disappear in a staggered manner between 70 ka and 50 ka