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When did humans get smart? Maybe a lot earlier than some thought.

A find in South Africa suggests that humans had mastered the skill of producing small stone blades – and could pass on the know-how – as early as 71,000 years ago.

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The finds at Pinnacle Point, he suggests, highlight the role a persistent regional population with readily available shelter can play in perpetuating and improving a technology.

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Pinnacle Point's blades required following some critical steps, according to the international team led by the University of Cape Town's Kyle Brown and Curtis Marean with Arizona State University's Institute of Human Origins.

People would have had to hunt for the right kind of rock, called silcrete. They would have to gather fuel for heat-treating the rock, a process that by then had been used for 91,000 years at the site. Then comes the preparation of cores from the rock, which would be shaped into blades, chipping to make the blades themselves, then reshaping them yet again. Then comes making the wood or bone handles or shafts that would become tools or weapons. Finally, the small blades would have to be affixed to the handles or shafts.

Maintaining know-how like this over an 11,000-year span, along with the skills needed to execute the various steps, would require accurate instructions to be handed down from generation to generation and over a fairly wide region, the team says.

These days, the ability to organize and perpetuate these skills over long periods and across a region would be dubbed "executive function," notes Sally McBrearty, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Connecticut in Storrs.

Executive function "is an essential component of the modern mind," she writes in an assessment for Nature that accompanied the new results from Pinnacle Point.

The tiny stone blades like those at Pinnacle Point could have affected the success modern humans had as they migrated out of Africa beginning a bit earlier than the oldest dates for the Pinnacle Point blades, she writes. The research team notes that the stone mini-blades could have been used as tips for arrows or spear-thrower darts – either of which have far greater range than a hand-thrown spear. That would allow hunters, or warriors, to operate at a safer distance from their targets.

If the migrants "were armed with the bow and arrow, they would have been more than a match for anything or anyone they met," Dr. McBrearty notes.

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