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.

In fact, almost nothing is known about what happened in Southern Africa between 40,000 and 20,000 years ago, Villa and his colleagues wrote online today (July 30) in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. This gap makes it hard to link middle-Stone Age societies to the ones that came later.

The researchers brought the latest in dating technology to bear on a site on the border of South Africa and Swaziland called Border Cave. They found that a number of the artifacts in the cave were much older than expected. [See Amazing Cave Photos]

Ostrich eggshell beads, sharp bone points likely used for arrowheads, and notched bones were among the fragments of life dating back thousands of years before the San were thought to have emerged. One long-bone tool is decorated with a spiral incision that was then filled with red-clay pigment. A set of warthog or pig tusks shows signs of grinding and scraping. Other bones are marked with notches, as if they were used to keep a tally of something.

The researchers also found beads, several apparently deliberately blackened by fire, one dating back more than 38,000 years. A piece of wood associated with a stone with a hole through it was dated to about 35,000 years ago. The tool appears to be an early digging stick of the sort used by the later San people to unearth roots and termite larvae.

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