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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Evidence of Modern Smarts in Stone Age Superglue Options


Researchers who reverse-engineered an ancient superglue have found
that Stone Age people were smarter than we thought.

Making the glue, originally used on 70,000-year-old composite tools,
clearly required high-level cognitive powers. Anthropologists usually
use symbolic art as the benchmark for modern cognition, but making the
glue was an equally profound accomplishment.

“These artisans were exceedingly skilled; they understood the
properties of their adhesive ingredients, and they were able to
manipulate them knowingly,” wrote University of Witwatersrand
archaeologists in a paper published Monday in the Proceedings of the
National Academy of Sciences.

The archaeologists took design cues from stone tools found during a
decade of excavation at South Africa’s Sibudu Cave site. The stones
were still covered with traces of an iron-rich red pigment and acacia
gum, a natural adhesive found in the bark of acacia trees.

Acacia gum was almost certainly used to attach the stones to wooden
shafts, but researchers have debated the pigment’s role. Some
suggested that it was decoration. The Witersrand team suspected a more
functional use.

Indeed, when they used Stone Age toolmaking techniques to attach
stones to wooden shafts with nothing but acacia gum, the tools soon
fell apart. When they added the pigment, the tools stuck together. But
making the glue required much more than simple mixing. It demanded
careful and sustained attention.

Keeping the fire at the right temperature required certain types of
wood, with a certain degree of moisture content. If glues were mixed
too close to the fire, they contained air bubbles. If too dry, they
weren’t cohesive; if too wet, they were weak. The Sibudu Cave’s Stone
Age inhabitants, wrote the researchers, were “competent chemists,
alchemists and pyrotechnologists.”

The Sibudu tools were about as old as the first possible evidence of
symbolic art, also found in South Africa. But some archaeologists say
that art, consisting of cross-hatched engravings on stone, may
represent absent-minded doodles rather than a cognitive leap. The
glues are a more convincing indication of modern intelligence.

“The glue maker needs to pay careful attention to the condition of
ingredients before and during the procedure and must be able to switch
attention between aspects of the methodology,” wrote the Witwatersrand
team. “To hold many courses of action in the mind involves
multitasking. This is one trait of modern human minds, notwithstanding
that even today, some people find multilevel operations difficult.”


Journal of Human Evolution
Volume 53, Issue 4, October 2007, Pages 406-419

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Copyright © 2007 Elsevier Ltd All rights reserved.

The gripping nature of ochre: The association of ochre with Howiesons
Poort adhesives and Later Stone Age mastics from South Africa
Purchase the full-text article

References and further reading may be available for this article. To
view references and further reading you must purchase this article.

Marlize Lombarda, b, Corresponding Author Contact Information, E-mail
The Corresponding Author

aDepartment of Human Sciences, Natal Museum, Private Bag 9070,
Pietermaritzburg 3200, South Africa

bSchool of Anthropology, Gender and Historical Studies, University of
KwaZulu-Natal, Private Bag X01, Scottsville 3209, South Africa

Received 2 June 2006;
accepted 30 May 2007.
Available online 23 July 2007.


This contribution provides direct evidence for the use of ochre in
adhesive recipes during the Howiesons Poort of South Africa. Stone
segments from two KwaZulu-Natal sites were microscopically analyzed to
document ochre and resin microresidue occurrences. These microresidues
show a clear distribution pattern on the tool portions that are
associated with hafting. Results from a separate quartz and crystal-
quartz sample may indicate that different adhesive recipes were
applied to different raw materials. A possible functional application
for ochre in association with Later Stone Age mastics is also
explored. The evidence and suggestions presented here expand our
understanding of the versatility, use, and value of pigmentatious
materials in prehistory; it is not viewed as an alternative or
replacement hypothesis for its possible symbolic role during the late


A brief introduction to the Howiesons Poort of South Africa
Samples and sites


Sample A from Sibudu Cave
Sample B from Sibudu Cave
Sample C from Umhlatuzana Rock Shelter
Sample D from Umhlatuzana Rock Shelter
Raw materials and adhesive recipes


Ochre as a component in adhesives
Investigating symbolic explanations
Ochre associated with Later Stone Age mastic


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