Figure 9

A (Dar es-Soltan 1 Cave); B&C (El Mnasra Cave)
CREDIT Silvia Bello and Mohammed Kamal (Fotokam, Morocco)

Bone knife from Morocco is the oldest specialized bone tool associated with Aterian culture

A single bone artefact found in a Moroccan cave is the oldest well-dated specialized bone tool associated with the Aterian culture of the Middle Stone Age, according to a study co-authored by the Museum’s Dr Silvia Bello. 

This find indicates the appearance of a unique technological complex in North Africa around 90,000 years ago  

A single bone artefact found in a Moroccan cave is the oldest well-dated specialized bone tool associated with the Aterian culture of the Middle Stone Age, according to a study co-authored by the Museum’s Dr Silvia Bello. The make and manufacture of the tool are distinct from similarly-aged sub-Saharan artefacts, suggesting a unique technological industry in North Africa.

The tool was recovered in 2012 from Dar es-Soltan 1 cave, located about 260m inland from the Atlantic coast of Morocco. Upon close examination, the team of scientists were able to identify the origins of the bone as a large mammal rib with evidence of having been shaped and sharpened into a knife measuring at just under 13cm long through a complex series of modifications. The layer containing the bone knife has been dated to approximately 90,000 years ago, approximately 55,000 years after the first appearance of the Aterian culture.

Dr Silvia Bello, researcher at the Natural History Museum and co-author on the paper says: ‘Aterians were capable of a complex and controlled sequence of actions involved in the manufacture of specialised bone knives. Such distinctive bone technology implies the emergence of an independent modern techno-complex unique to North Africa around 100,000 years ago.’

This tool, and the technology used to create it, are distinct from bone tools of a similar age in southern Africa but similar to two tools known from the El Mnasra cave site in Morocco which is also of similar age, suggesting a unique North African Aterian bone technology. Specialized bone tools are considered a sign of cognitive complexity but have been poorly-understood with the Aterian technological complex, so this finding represents a new insight into the development of modern human cognition. The authors also suggest that this new technology may have come about in response to changing resources around 90,000 years ago, but note that more study will be required to support this.

Highlighting the significance of this find, lead author Dr Abdeljalil Bouzouggar says: ‘Aterians made specialised bone tools earlier than originally believed and more than 40,000 years before the Neanderthals.’

The paper will be published Wednesday October 3 in PLOS ONE by Dr Abdeljalil Bouzouggar of the Institut National des Sciences de l’Archéologie et du Patrimoine in Morocco, Dr Silvia Bello, Dr Louise Humphrey and Simon Parfitt of the Natural History Museum, London and colleagues. 

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