The oldest well-dated specialized bone tool associated with the Aterian culture of the Middle Stone Age has been identified as an artefact discovered in a Moroccan gave. According to study released by the PLOS ONE journal by Abdeljalil Bouzouggar of the Institut National des Sciences de l'Archéologie et du Patrimoine in Morocco, the tool gives evidence that it is distinct from sub-Saharan artefacts of similar antiquity, which suggests a unique technological industry in North Africa.
The implement was found in 2012 within the Dar-es Soltan 1 cave, located about 25 miles from the Mediterranean coastal city of Rabat. Dar es-Soltan 1 cave (33°58’44”N, 6°53’51”W) lies about 600 feet from the present Atlantic coast. The cave entrance faces west towards the ocean and is at an altitude of about 40 feet above sea level. The cave measures about 65 feet in depth and is about 30 feet at its widest point. According to the study, "Previous excavations by Dr. Armand Ruhlmann in 1937 and 1938 confirmed the presence of Aterian (MSA) and Iberomaurusian/Late Stone Age (LSA) layers that are rich in artefactual and organic remains. Human skeletal remains were also reported from the uppermost layers . of Morocco."
Bouzouggar and colleagues were able to identify the origins of the bone as a large mammal rib with evidence of having been shaped and sharpened into a 48 inch-long knife through a complex series of modifications. The archaeological layer containing the bone knife has been dated to approximately 90,000 years ago, or approximately 55,000 years after the first appearance of the Aterian culture. A wetter climate existed thousands of years ago and was noted for large animals, including elephants.
This tool and the technology used to create it are distinct from bone tools of similar age in southern Africa but are similar to two tools recovered 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 reference to the Aterian culture. This find represents a new insight into the development of modern human intellect. 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.
Co-author Silvia Bello said of the find, "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 the north Africa around 100,000 years ago."
The Aterian is a Middle Stone Age (or Middle Palaeolithic) culture produced stone tools in North Africa, but possibly in Oman and the Thar Desert of India. The earliest Aterian dates to about 145,000 years ago at the site of Ifri n'Ammar in Morocco. However, most of the early dates are around the beginning of the Last Interglacial age: around 130,000 years ago, when the environment of North Africa began to change. The Aterian culture disappeared around 20,000 years ago as North Africa became drier.