The earliest evidence of hunter-gatherer culture, which paved the way for modern human society, has been discovered in a South African cave by an international team of researchers.

The team, which consists of scientists from South Africa, France, Italy, Norway, USA and the UK, discovered a series of stone tools which are almost identical to those used by the modern-day African San bushpeople.

The researchers believe that, because the ancient artefacts are so similar to modern-day tribal tools, their function and purpose is clear - providing clear evidence of basic hunter-gatherer society.

Hunting and gathering techniques provided subsistence for all modern humans until they evolved into more sophisticated agricultural methods around 10,000 years ago.

Having used forensic dating techniques, the researchers claim their artefacts are around 44,000 years old. It has previously been assumed that the modern hunter-gatherer only emerged around 20,000 years ago.

Chemical analysis of residues on a wooden stick decorated with incisions revealed that such tools were used to hold and carry a poison, containing ricinoleic acid. This is believed to represent the earliest evidence of the use of poison.

Dr Lucinda Bakewell, a senior member of the research team, said: "The dating and analysis of archaeological material, discovered at Border Cave in South Africa, has allowed us to demonstrate that many elements of material culture that characterise the lifestyle of San hunter-gatherers in southern Africa, were part of the culture and technology of the inhabitants of this site 44,000 years ago.

"They [the early hunter-gatherers] adorned themselves with ostrich egg and marine shell beads, and notched bones for notational purposes. They fashioned fine bone points for use as awls and poisoned arrowheads. One point is decorated with a spiral groove filled with red ochre, which closely parallels similar marks that San [tribespeople] make to identify their arrowheads when hunting."