A 90,000-year-old bone knife made from an ancient animal rib has been discovered in a Moroccan cave.
The find proves that our north African cave-dwelling ancestors were making ‘sophisticated bone tools’ much earlier than previously thought and more than 40,000 years before the Neanderthals.
The bone is the oldest tool to have been used by the technologically advanced Aterian culture that lived in northern Africa during the Middle Stone Age.
This culture made tools that were distinct from similarly-aged sub-Saharan artefacts, suggesting a unique technological industry had developed in North Africa.
The tool was discovered in 2012 in Dar es-Soltan 1 cave, which is around 850 feet (260 metres) inland from the Atlantic coast of Morocco.
Scientists led by Dr Silvia Bello from the Natural History Museum believe the bone was part of a large mammals rib.
They found evidence the bone had been shaped and sharpened into a knife that was just under 5 inches (13cm) long.
‘This find is significant because it shows how sophisticated bone tool technology was already around about 100, 000 years ago’, Dr Bello told MailOnline.
‘Modern humans seemed to have been capable of crafting sophisticated bone tools very early on.
‘It also show the existence of a new type of bone tool, with no other example in the rest of Africa.’
Scientists say there is very little use-wear pattern on the edge of the bone tool.
‘Therefore we suggest it was use to cut soft material’, Dr Bello said, although it was not clear at this stage what materials it would have cut.
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.
The Aterian stone tool industry was based in North Africa and is believed to have disappeared around 20,000 years ago.
‘Aterians were capable of a complex and controlled sequence of actions involved in the manufacture of specialised bone knives’, said Dr Bello.
The tool – and the methods used to create it – are distinct from bone tools of a similar age in southern Africa.
However, it is similar to two tools known from the El Mnasra cave site in Morocco which is of a similar age.
‘Aterians made specialised bone tools earlier than originally believed and more than 40,000 years before the Neanderthals’, said co-author lead author Dr Abdeljalil Bouzouggar from the Institut National des Sciences de l’Archéologie et du Patrimoine in Morocco.
The find suggests they were using bones in a way that was unique to North African Aterian culture, according to the paper published in Plos One.
Specialised bone tools are considered a sign of cognitive complexity.
However, they 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 theory.