HOMO ERECTUS CULTURE AND THINKING
At the 350,000-year-old site in Bilzingsleben, archaeologists found pieces of bone and smooth stones arranged in a 27-foot-wide circle. "They intentionally paved this area for cultural activities," Dietrich Mania off the University of Jena, told National Geographic. "We found here a large anvil of quartzite set between the horns of a huge bison. Near it were fractured human skulls."
Describing an elephant tibia engraved with a series a regular lines found at Bilzingsleben, Mania said, "Seven lines go in one direction, 21 go in the other. We have found other pieces of bone with cut lines that are also too regular to be accidental. They are graphic symbols. To us they are evidence of abstract thinking and human language." The tibia was dated at around 400,000 years ago.
Scientists debate whether 400,000-year-old hominins were capable of symbolic thinking, often regarded as hallmark of language. If Mania’s conjectures are correct, then ancient hominins could have been much more advanced than previously thought.
In Zambia, scientists found what they said were 350,000-year-old ocher crayons. If these crayons had in fact been used to make drawings or markings they could be regarded as the oldest known attempt to paint, suggests that early man attempted create art much earlier than people thought.
Websites and Resources on Hominins and Human Origins: Smithsonian Human Origins Program humanorigins.si.edu ; Institute of Human Origins iho.asu.edu ; Becoming Human University of Arizona site becominghuman.org ; Talk Origins Index talkorigins.org/origins ; Last updated 2006. Hall of Human Origins American Museum of Natural History amnh.org/exhibitions ; Wikipedia article on Human Evolution Wikipedia ; Human Evolution Images evolution-textbook.org; Hominin Species talkorigins.org ; Paleoanthropology Links talkorigins.org ; Britannica Human Evolution britannica.com ; Human Evolution handprint.com ; National Geographic Map of Human Migrations genographic.nationalgeographic.com ; Humin Origins Washington State University wsu.edu/gened/learn-modules ; University of California Museum of Anthropology ucmp.berkeley.edu; BBC The evolution of man" bbc.co.uk/sn/prehistoric_life; "Bones, Stones and Genes: The Origin of Modern Humans" (Video lecture series). Howard Hughes Medical Institute.; Human Evolution Timeline ArchaeologyInfo.com ; Walking with Cavemen (BBC) bbc.co.uk/sn/prehistoric_life ; PBS Evolution: Humans pbs.org/wgbh/evolution/humans; PBS: Human Evolution Library www.pbs.org/wgbh/evolution/library; Human Evolution: you try it, from PBS pbs.org/wgbh/aso/tryit/evolution; John Hawks' Anthropology Weblog johnhawks.net/ ; New Scientist: Human Evolution newscientist.com/article-topic/human-evolution; Fossil Sites and Organizations: The Paleoanthropology Society paleoanthro.org; Institute of Human Origins (Don Johanson's organization) iho.asu.edu/; The Leakey Foundation leakeyfoundation.org; The Stone Age Institute stoneageinstitute.org; The Bradshaw Foundation bradshawfoundation.com ; Turkana Basin Institute turkanabasin.org; Koobi Fora Research Project kfrp.com; Maropeng Cradle of Humankind, South Africa maropeng.co.za ; Blombus Cave Project web.archive.org/web; Journals: Journal of Human Evolution journals.elsevier.com/; American Journal of Physical Anthropology onlinelibrary.wiley.com; Evolutionary Anthropology onlinelibrary.wiley.com; Comptes Rendus Palevol journals.elsevier.com/ ; PaleoAnthropology paleoanthro.org.
Homo Erectus and Language
Some scientists have theorized that Homo erectus must have possessed some form of rudimentary language because it needed to communicate to organize hunts and pass on information about tool making. The parts of the Homo erectus brain associated with reasoning, symbolism and imagination though were relatively undeveloped.
The frontal lobe, where complex thinking takes place in modern humans, was relatively small. The small hole in its vertebrae probably meant that not enough information was transferred from the brain to the lungs, neck and mouth to make speech possible.
Ann MacLarson, an anthropologist at Roehampton Institute in London, told National Geographic: "With simple grunts you can communicate a lot. But he couldn't have produced anything like modern speech."
Scientists believe that man may have been able to speak as early as 400,000 years based on studies of the hypoglossal canal, an opening on the skull through which nerve fibers pass from the brain to the tongue. Humans have a larger hypoglossal canal than chimpanzees and evidence from 400,000 fossils seems to indicate that early man had a canal closer in size to a human canal than a chimpanzee canal.
Earliest Known Engraving: Homo Erectus Art?
A zigzag pattern found on the fossilised shell, dated to 430,000 years ago, in Java, Indonesia is believed to be the world’s earliest known engraving. It is thought to have been by homo erectus, demonstrating the species manual dexterity and perhaps symbolism and art. Australian Associated Press reported: “The find, reported in the journal Nature on Thursday, predates by some 300,000 years other markings made by modern humans or Neanderthals, previously thought the oldest. The age and location of the shell suggests the pattern was carved by an even earlier human ancestor known as Homo erectus. “It rewrites human history,” said Dr Stephen Munro, the Australian National University paleoanthropologist who made the find. [Source: Australian Associated Press, December 3, 2014]
“It suggests Homo erectus had considerable manual dexterity and possibly greater cognitive abilities, and raises the prospect that they might have been more “human” than previously thought. “That’s something people will argue about,” Munro said. Munro then worked with international colleagues to accurately date the shell and to check that the engraving wasn’t a more recent addition. They found that the engraving was indeed made before fossilisation occurred, probably between 430,000 and 540,000 years ago. It’s unclear whether the pattern was intended as art or served some other purpose.
“The ancient find would have been impossible without the very modern technology of digital photography. The shells, first discovered by celebrated Dutch scientist Eugene Dubois a century ago, have been packed away in boxes for years. On a Dutch public holiday in May 2007, Munro seized the opportunity to photograph every one. It took him all day. When he returned to Australia and flicked through the photos, one in particular stood out. An engraving, all but invisible to the naked eye, was quite clear. “It was a eureka moment,” he said. “I could see immediately that they were man-made engravings. There was no other explanation.”“
Homo Erectus Shelter
Terra Amata Hut The first houses were thought to be windbreaks made of animals skins stretched over a frame. There is evidence that Homo Erectus constructed 50-foot-long branch huts with stone slabs or animal skins for floors. A 1.75-million-year pile of lava blocks, arranged in a semi-circle, discovered by Mary Leakey, may have been footings for a windbreak. According to the Guinness Book of Records, this may be the world's oldest structure.
The oldest recognized buildings in the world are twelve 400,000-year-old huts found in Nice, France in 1960. Uncovered by an excavator preparing to build a new house, the oval shelters ranged from 26 feet to 49 feet in length and were between 13 feet and 20 feet wide. They were built of 3-inch in diameter stakes and braced by a ring of stones. Longer poles were set around the perimeter as supports. The huts had hearths and pebble-lined pits and were defined by stake holes.
Ancient humans thought to be Homo erectus that lived 350,000 years ago near present-day Bilzingsleben, East Germany constructed shelters similar to those of Bushmen in southern Africa. Circular bone and stone foundations were discovered for three huts between 9 and 13 feet across. In the middle of on circle, archaeologist found an elephant tusk, which they speculated was a center post.
Homo Erectus Tools
Homo erectus was the first to use fire and sophisticated tools. Unlike earlier hominins that developed crude choppers and flakes,Homo erectus produced sophisticated stone axes and used sharp stone cleavers and finger-size scrapers used slice off chewable sizes of meat. "Tools gave them access to elephants, wildebeest — bonanzas so big they couldn't eat it all," Nick Toth, an archaeologist from Indiana University told National Geographic. Homo erectus made the first wooden spears and first wooden bowls. Using stone anvils and point pressure tools, Homo erectus was able to fashion large tool heads and fine long blades, sharpened on both sides. They made hunting tools with spear points for throwing and thrusting and ax heads for chopping and dismembering carcasses. Perhaps they used cooperative skills in hunting to drive rhinos, elephants or mammoths over cliffs or into swamps.
Blades dated to 240,000 year ago made from long slivers of stones in the Rift Valley are so skillfully crafted from difficult-to-work obsidian and lava, that some anthropologists argue that they required abstract thought to make.
Some tools associated with Homo erectus however were also relatively primitive. The tools found at sites Dmanisi, Georgia consisted of rock “cores” and primitive choppers, not much sophisticated than those made by Homo habilis and possibly Australopithecus.
Homo Erectus Hand Axes
Olduvai hand ax Hand axes are usually associated with Homo erectus. Ones found at Konso-Gardula, Ethiopia are believed to be between 1.37 and 1.7 million year old. Describing a primitive 1.5- to 1.7-million-year-old ax, Ethiopian archaeologist Yonas Beyene told National Geographic, "You don't see much refinement here. They've only been knapped away a few flakes to make the edge sharp." After displaying a beautifully-crafted ax from a perhaps a 100,000 year later he said, "See how refined and straight the cutting edge has become. It was an artform for them. It wasn't just for cutting. Making these is time-consuming working."
Thousands of primitive hand 1.5-million- to 1.4-million-year-old hand axes have been Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania and Ubeidya, Israel. Carefully-crafted, sophisticated 780,000-year-old hand axes have been unearthed in Olorgesaile, near the Kenya and Tanzania border. Scientists believe they were used to butcher, dismember and deflesh large animals like elephants.
Sophisticated Homo erectus teardrop-shaped stone axes that fit snugly in the hand and had a sharp edged created by careful shearing of the rock on both sides. The tool could be used to cut, smash and beat.
Big symmetrical hand axes, known as Acheulan tools, endured for more than 1 million years little changed from the earliest versions found. Since few advances were made one anthropologists described the period in which Homo erectus lived as a time of “almost unimaginable monotony.” Acheulan tools are named after 300,000-year-old hand axes and other tools found in St. Acheul, France.
Asian and Australian Early Homo Tools
1.7 million years old
tools from Ethiopia In Eastern sites in China, India and Indonesia, numerous choppers and flakes have been discovered but no hand axes. This has lead scientists to speculate that larger tools may have been made from bamboo or wood. The oldest tools found in Asia include a 1.7-million-year-old flakes found in Nihewan, near Beijing and a crude 600,000-year-old biface found in Yuxian, China.
Sophisticated stone tools found at the 780,000-year-old site of Bose Basin in southern China near the Vietnam border seems to indicate that homonids in Asia developed tools just as advanced as tols made by their cousins in Africa and Europe. For a long time Asian homonids were depicted as being inferior and less sophisticated than homonids in Africa and Europe but the teardrop-shaped tools with double sharp edges found at Bose basin are as developed as this made 500,000 years ago in Europe.
A 116,000-year-old core tool has been found in Jimminum, north Australia.
Homo Erectus as Hunters and Prey
Two thirds of the Homo erectus fossils found Longgushan in China contained damage consistent with that caused by puncture marks from a carnivore’s pointed front teeth, most likely those of a hyena. The puncture marks are more numerous around the face and cranium. Modern hyenas frequently attack and bite the face of their prey first. Facial bones are quite thin and getting at and damaging the brain by crushing the face is an effective way of killing an animal.
Diverse tools made from stone, bone, antler and wood seems to indicate that the first Europeans were hunting and butchering bison, rhinos and elephants as early as 400,000 years ago. Crushed skulls of hunted prey and scavenged animals seems to show they ate brains. They also may have used the fangs of sabertooth tigers as knives.
Five throwing spears, believed to be 400,000 years old, were discovered in a strip mine near Schöningen, Germany (60 miles east of Hannover) in 1995. Carefully crafted with stone tools and resembling modern javelins, the wooden spears were preserved in moist peat. The longest one was over seven feet. It was built with the same balance, the same center of gravity and the same aerodynamic pattern as a modern javelin. It also suggested its users could plan, cooperate and pursue game. A 200,000-year-old spear found in Clacton-on-Sea, England in 1911.
Homo Erectus Groups Hunting
Rhodesian Men English archaeologist Mark Roberts told National Geographic, In Europe "horses my have moved up and down the coast in herds. Almost certainly humans would have been hunting them cooperatively, rather than scavenging them We believe that because we never find butchery marks on top of the tooth marks of scavenging animals. It's always the other way around."
In 1987-88, scientists found the remains of an elephant and numerous dismembered skeletons of giant now-extinct baboons along with 400 flaked tools near Olorgesailie, Kenya. Many bones had obvious cut marks and the meatiest limbs were not present. The tools were made from rock that came from 30 kilometers away. If these animals had indeed been hunted rather than scavenged it would have required great skill to bring down such powerful animals.
Meat and bone marrow also gave Homo erectus energy to grow a larger brain. Perhaps they used cooperative skills in hunting to drive rhinos, elephants or mammoths over cliffs or into swamps. "Before, we doubted that humans had speech this early," Roberts said. "But for this kind of hunting, which would require strategies such as ambush, speech would have been critical."
Homo Erectus Violence and Cannibalism
Homo Erectus skulls found in India show a large number of head wounds. Were these caused by warfare or do they show that erectus was going after big game? It is hard to say for sure. Diseased bones found in Kenya are similar to those of modern humans who have been poisoned by eating too much Vitamin A from animal livers. [Source: Kenneth Weaver, National Geographic, November 1985 [┹]
Skulls dated to be 500,000 years old found in caves in Longgushan China appear to have been severed from the body and preserved, presumably as trophies. The purpose of this may have been to obtain the strength of the deceased. Critics of these claim say the marks made on the skulls were more likely made by giant hyenas than other hominins.
Cut marks made on human bones, similar to those made with Homo erectus tools on butchered animals, have been found in sites ranging from South Africa to Croatia . Some scientists think this indicates that cannibalism may have been part of Homo species behavior for hundreds of thousands of years. One scientist told National Geographic, "They treated their fellow humans the same as other fauna."
DNA studies of people living today contain genes that produce prions — proteins that can be passed by humans that eat other infected humans. This suggest that cannibalism might have once been common among hominins. Prions can also be picked up from eating the meat of infected animals. Another explanation for their presence.
The earliest stone tools believed to have been made by the genus Homo are tools from or of the type of found in Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania, where they were discovered in large quantities. Oldowan tools were characterized by their simple construction, predominantly using core forms. These cores were river pebbles, or rocks similar to them, that had been struck by a spherical hammerstone to cause conchoidal fractures removing flakes from one surface, creating an edge and often a sharp tip. The blunt end is the proximal surface; the sharp, the distal. Oldowan is a percussion technology. Grasping the proximal surface, the hominid brought the distal surface down hard on an object he wished to detach or shatter, such as a bone or tuber. [Source: Wikipedia +]
The earliest known Oldowan tools date from 2.6 million years ago and were in Gona, Ethiopia. After this date, the Oldowan Industry spread throughout much of Africa. Archaeologists are currently unsure which Hominin species first developed them, with some speculating that it was Australopithecus garhi, and others saying it was Homo habilis. Homo habilis used them for a long period. About 1.9-1.8 million years ago Homo erectus inherited them. The Industry flourished in southern and eastern Africa between 2.6 and 1.7 million years ago, but also spread out of Africa and into Eurasia with homo erectus, who took Oldowan tool as far east as Java by 1.8 million years ago and Northern China by 1.6 million years ago. +
Oldowan Tool-Making Site at Lake Victoria, Kenya
Popular Archaeology reported: “At a site in the Homa Peninsula of Lake Victoria, Kenya, scientists are uncovering stone tools and fossils that are shedding new light on their manufacture and use, as well as early human habitat and behavior. Led by co-directors Dr. Thomas Plummer of Queens College, City University of New York and Dr. Rick Potts of the Smithsonian Institution, excavations at the site, called Kanjera South, have revealed a large and diversified assortment of Oldowan stone tools, fossil animal remains and other flora and faunal evidence that is building a picture of hominin, or early human, life and behavior in a grassland environment about 2 million years ago. Oldowan stone tools represent the earliest known human or hominin stone tool industry, named after the Olduvai Gorge, where Louis Leakey first discovered examples in the 1930’s. This early industry was typically composed of simple “pebble tools” such as choppers, scrapers and pounders, a type of technology used from about 2.6 to 1.7 million years ago. [Source: Popular Archaeology, June 12, 2012 /+]
“According to Plummer, the site “has yielded approximately 3700 fossils and 2900 artifact...This represents one of the largest collections of Oldowan artifacts and fauna found thus far”. But more significant than the numbers is what the analysis of the finds and the site has revealed. Says Plummer, “the 2 million year old sediments at Kanjera South…..provide some of the best early evidence for a grassland dominated ecosystem during the time period of human evolution, and the first clear documentation of human ancestors forming archaeological sites in such a setting”. /+\
“The site thus shows clear evidence that early humans of this time period were inhabiting and utilizing a grassland environment, in addition to other types of environments, a signal of critical adapation that led to evolutionary success. Moreover, analysis of the makeup of the tools and the geography and geology of the area suggested that these hominins were transporting what they must have considered to be the highest quality materials from relatively distant locations to produce the most effective and efficient tools for butchering animals. /+\
“Cut marks made by stone blades on fossil bones, particularly small antelopes, showed signs that the animals may have been hunted, or at least encountered first, by the early humans before other preying animals reached the carcasses. “The overall pattern of hominin access to the complete carcasses of small antelopes may be the signal of hominin hunting”, writes Plummer. “If so, this would be the oldest evidence of hunting to date in the archaeological record”.
“Use of stone tools by these early humans apparently went beyond butchery. “Thus far, the use-wear on the quartz and quartzite subsample of Kanjera artifacts confirms that animal butchery was conducted on-site, but also demonstrates the processing of a variety of plant tissues, including wood (for making wooden tools?) and tubers. This is significant, because the processing of plant materials appears to have been quite important, but would otherwise have been archaeologically invisible”. /+\
More complex Acheulean tools, named after the site of Saint-Acheul in France, developed 1.76 million years ago. Acheulean tools were characterized not by a core, but by a biface, the most notable form of which was the hand axe. The earliest Acheulean ax appeared in the West Turkana area of Kenya and around the same time in southern Africa. Acheulean axes are larger, heavier and have sharp cutting edges that are chipped from opposite sides into a teardrop shape. [Source: The Guardian, Wikipedia +]
In contrast to an Oldowan tool, which is the result of a fortuitous and probably ex tempore operation to obtain one sharp edge on a stone, an Acheulean tool is a planned result of a manufacturing process. The manufacturer begins with a blank, either a larger stone or a slab knocked off a larger rock. From this blank the maker removes large flakes, to be used as cores. Standing a core on edge on an anvil stone, the maker hits the exposed edge with centripetal blows of a hard hammer to roughly shape the implement. Then the piece must be worked over again, or retouched, with a soft hammer of wood or bone to produce a tool finely chipped all over consisting of two convex surfaces intersecting in a sharp edge. Such a tool is used for slicing; using it for pounding would destroy the edge and cut the hand. +
Some Acheulean tools are disk-shaped, others ovoid, others leaf-shaped and pointed, and others elongated and pointed at the distal end, with a blunt surface at the end, obviously used for drilling. These tools are believed to have often been used for butchering. Not being composite (lacking haft) they are not very useful for killing. Killing had to have been done in some other way. Acheulean tools are larger than Oldowan tools. The blank was ported to serve as an ongoing source of flakes until it was finally retouched as a finished tool itself. Edges were often sharpened by further retouching. On million-year-old hand axes excavated at Olorgesailie, Kenya, Rhitu Chatterjee of NPR wrote: The oldest innovations were axes designed to be held in the palm of the hand. They were shaped like a tear drop, with a rounded end and a pointed eye. The edges were wavy and sharp. And they look as if they were great at chopping down branches — or chopping up the carcass of a large animal.” "I think of the hand axes as the Swiss army knife of the Stone Age," Smithsonian paleoanthropologist Rick Potts told NPR. The scientists reported their findings in three studies published in the journal Science.[Source: Rhitu Chatterjee, NPR.org, March 15, 2018]
“In addition to branch- and carcass-chopping, the axes were likely used to dig for water to drink or tubers to eat. The carcasses probably belonged to large animals like the giant (now extinct) ancestors of hippos, elephants and wild pigs that roamed the grasslands back then. Potts says the ancient humans of that time likely scavenged dead animals, as their heavy, clunky hand axes wouldn't have served well for hunting big game. "These are very large tools," he says. "They might have been thrown but not very accurately." Nevertheless, these hand axes served the ancient humans well for several hundred thousand years — from 1.2 million years ago to 500,000 years ago — and the technology remained largely unchanged during the time. “
1.76-Million-Year-Old Hand Axes from Kenya: Oldest Advanced Stone Tools
A 1.76-million-year-old hand ax found in Kenya and reported in 2011 is the oldest advanced stone tool yet found and shows that early humans — with Homo erectus being the most likely candidate — were using such tools at least 300,000 years earlier than thought to perfrom tasks such as butchering animal carcasses. Ian Sample wrote in The Guardian: “A rare haul of picks, flakes and hand axes recovered from ancient sediments in Kenya are the oldest remains of advanced stone tools yet discovered. Archaeologists unearthed the implements while excavating mudstone banks on the shores of Lake Turkana in the remote north-west of the country.[Source: Ian Sample, The Guardian August 31, 2011 |=|]
“The largest of the tools are around 20 centimeters long and have been chipped into shape on two sides, a hallmark of more sophisticated stone toolmaking techniques probably developed by Homo erectus, an ancestor of modern humans. Trenches dug at the same site revealed remains of long-gone species that shared the land with those who left the tools behind. Among them were primitive versions of hippopotamuses, rhinos, horses, antelopes, and dangerous predators such as big cats and hyenas. The stone tools, made for crushing, cutting and scraping, gave early humans a means to butcher animal carcasses, strip them of meat and crack open their bones to expose the nutritious marrow. |=|
“Researchers dated the sediments where the tools were found to 1.76 million years old. Until now, the earliest stone tools of this kind were estimated to be 1.4 million years old and came from a haul in Konso, Ethiopia. Others found in India are dated more vaguely, between 1 million and 1.5 million years old. Older, cruder stone tools have been found. The most ancient evidence of toolmaking by early humans and their relatives dates to 2.6 million years ago and includes simple pebble-choppers for hacking and crushing. These Oldowan tools, named after the Olduvai gorge in Tanzania, were wielded by our predecessors for around a million years. |=|
Who Used the 1.76-Million-Year-Old Hand Axes from Kenya
Ian Sample wrote in The Guardian: ““Most Acheulian stone tools have been recovered from sites alongside fossilised bones of Homo erectus, leading many archaeologists to believe our ancestors developed the technology as an improvement on the Oldowan toolmaking skills they inherited. "The Acheulian tools represent a great technological leap," said Dennis Kent, a geologist involved in the study at Rutgers University in New Jersey and Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in New York.[Source: Ian Sample, The Guardian August 31, 2011 |=|]
“Writing in the journal Nature, a team of researchers led by Kent's colleague Christopher Lepre describe finding the stone tools in a region called Kokiselei in the Rift Valley. The site is close to where several spectacular human fossils have been found, including Turkana Boy, an early human teenager who lived 1.5 million years ago. |=|
“Unearthing the tools has raised fresh questions about the skills possessed by different groups of H. erectus as they spread across the globe. Lepre's team found both Oldowan and Acheulian stone tools at Kokiselei, but no evidence for advanced stone tools has been found at a site occupied by H. erectus 1.8 million years ago in Dmanisi in Georgia. This, Kent said, presents a problem if H. erectus originated in Africa and migrated to Asia, as many archaeologists believe. "Why didn't Homo erectus take these tools with them to Asia?" |=|
“One radical explanation offered by researchers is that H. erectus originated in Asia instead of Africa. Another possibility is that groups migrating from Africa into Asia lost the skills to make Acheulian tools along the way. Chris Stringer, head of human origins at the Natural History Museum in London and author of a new book The Origin of Our Species, said the latest haul of Acheulian tools were "very crude by the standards of later examples". "In terms of the Out of Africa event, new dating of the Dmanisi site in Georgia places some of the material from there older than 1.8 million years ago, so it is evident that human emergence from Africa preceded even this new date for bifacial tools. In fact some researchers believe the first exodus from Africa could have been even earlier than the date for Dmanisi, by a pre-erectus population making Oldowan tools," he said. |=|
"In the deep past, with small populations that were prone to local or wider extinctions, innovations did not always take hold and spread. Novelties like blade tools and bows and arrows may have been invented and reinvented many times over, due to the loss of individuals and populations, and the knowledge they carried. "So we cannot be sure that the tools found at Kokiselei were really the beginning of the establishment of the Acheulian. Populations could have experimented with bifacial working many times before it took hold more widely around 1.6 million years ago." |=|
Improved Stone Axes: A Sign of Mental Advances by Early Humans?
According to Los Alamos National Laboratory: “Stone Age man’s gradual improvement in tool development, particularly in crafting stone handaxes, is providing insight into the likely mental advances these early humans made a million years ago. Better tools make for better hunting, and better tools come from more sophisticated thought processes. Close analysis of bits of chipped and flaked stone from across Ethiopia is helping scientists crack the code of how these early humans thought over time. [Source: Los Alamos National Laboratory, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Phys.org, March 14, 2013]
“Los Alamos National Laboratory Fellow Giday WoldeGabriel and a team of Ethiopian, Japanese, American and German researchers recently examined the world’s oldest handaxes and other stone tools from southern Ethiopia. Their observation of improved workmanship over time indicates a distinct advance in mental capabilities of the residents in the entire region, with potential impacts in tool-development skills, and in overall spatial and navigational capabilities, all of which improved their hunting adaptation. “Even though fossil remains of the tool makers are not commonly preserved, the handaxes clearly archive the evolution of innovation in craftsmanship, acquired intelligence and social behavior in a pre-human community over a million-year interval,” said WoldeGabriel.
“The scientists determined the age of the tools based on the interlayered volcanic ashes with the handaxe-bearing sedimentary deposits in Konso, Ethiopia. Handaxes and other double-sided or bifacial tools are known as the first purposely-shaped tools made by humanity and are closely associated with Homo erectus, an ancestor of modern humans. A paper in a special series of inaugural articles in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “The characteristics and chronology of the earliest Acheulean at Konso, Ethiopia,” described their work.
“Some experts suggest that manufacturing three-dimensional symmetric tools is possible only with advanced mental-imaging capacities. Such tools might have emerged in association with advanced spatial and navigational cognition, perhaps related to an enhanced mode of hunting adaptation. Purposeful thinning of large bifacial tools is technologically difficult, the researchers note. In modern humans, acquisition and transmission of such skills occur within a complex social context that enables sustained motivation during long-term practice and learning over a possible five-year period.
Researchers observed that the handaxes’ structure evolved from thick, roughly-manufactured stone tools in the earliest period of Acheulean tool making, approximately 1.75 million years ago to thinner and more symmetric tools around 850,000 years ago. The chronological framework for this handaxe assemblage, based on the ages of volcanic ashes and sediments, suggests that this type of tool making was being established on a regional scale at that time, paralleling the emergence of Homo erectus-like hominin morphology. The appearance of the Ethiopian Acheulean handaxes at approximately 1.75 million years ago is chronologically indistinguishable from similar tools recently found west of Lake Turkana in northern Kenya, more than 125 miles to the south. “To me, the most intriguing story of the discovery is that a pre-human community lived in a locality known as Konso at the southern end of the Ethiopian Rift System for at least a million years and how the land sustained the livelihood of the occupants for that long period of time. In contrast, look at what our species has done to Earth in less than 100,000 years – the time it took for modern humans to disperse out of Africa and impose our voracious appetite for resources, threatening our planet and our existence,” WoldeGabriel said.”
900,000-Year-Old Hand Axes from Spain
Hominins living in what is now Spain fashioned double-edged stone cutting tools as early as 900,000 years ago, almost twice as long ago as previously thought. Bruce Bower wrote in Science News: “ If confirmed, the new dates support the idea that the manufacture and use of teardrop-shaped stone implements, known as hand axes, spread rapidly from Africa into Europe and Asia beginning roughly 1 million years ago, say geologist Gary Scott and paleontologist Luis Gibert, both of the Berkeley Geochronology Center in California. [Source: Bruce Bower, Science News, September 3, 2009 ~|~]
“Evidence of ancient reversals of Earth's magnetic field in soil at two archaeological sites indicates that hand axes date to 900,000 years ago in one location and to 760,000 years ago in the other, Scott and Gibert report in the Sept. 3 Nature. Until now, most researchers thought that hand axes unearthed at these sites were made between 500,000 and 200,000 years ago. ~|~
“Other European hand ax sites date to no more than 500,000 years ago. In contrast, hand axes date to roughly 1.7 million years ago in eastern Africa. And age estimates of 1.2 million years and 800,000 years for hand axes from two Israeli sites indicate that this tool-making style spread out of Africa long before the origin of Homo sapiens around 200,000 years ago. Excavations in southern China have also yielded 800,000-year-old hand axes (SN: 3/4/00, p. 148). Fossils from ancient human ancestors have not been found with the Israeli and Chinese artifacts.~|~
“Earlier analyses of magnetic reversals in soil at other sites in southern Spain indicate that single-edged stone tools appeared there around 1.3 million years ago, Gibert says (SN: 1/4/97, p. 12). Population movements back and forth between Africa and Europe must have occurred at that time, possibly via vessels across the Strait of Gibraltar, he hypothesizes. "Then at 900,000 years ago, we now have the oldest evidence of hand axes in Europe, which represents a second migration from Africa that brought a new stone-tool culture," Gibert says. ~|~
“Scott and Gibert's "surprisingly old ages" for the Spanish hand axes bring the chronology of ancient Europe's settlement in line with that of Asia, remarks archaeologist Wil Roebroeks of Leiden University in the Netherlands. Europe contains relatively few stone-tool sites from around 1 million years ago, making it difficult to reconstruct the timing of ancient population pulses into the continent, Roebroeks says. ~|~
“Although new estimated ages for soil layers at the Spanish sites appear credible, the suggestion that hand axes there are by far the oldest in Europe "is extremely daring, to put it mildly," comments archaeologist Robin Dennell of the University of Sheffield in England. In his view, the precise depth of the hand axes when they were unearthed several decades ago remains unclear. It's possible that these finds actually came from soil layers that Scott and Gibert place at no more than 600,000 years old, Dennell says. ~|~
“Scott and Gibert first identified the geological position of specific magnetic reversals in sediment at an ancient lakeshore near the Spanish sites. Dates for these reversals have already been established in previous studies. The researchers compared these magnetic shifts to those at the hand ax sites to date the tools. These data provide minimum ages for the Spanish finds. "Older ages are possible but would be odd," Gibert says.” ~|~
Smaller More Diverse Tools Become Common Place Around 320,000 Years Ago
Rhitu Chatterjee of NPR wrote: “around 320,000 years ago, the ancient humans seem to have switched to an entirely new technology. The scientists found numerous smaller, flatter, sharper stone tools. "We see a smaller technology, a more diverse series of stone tools," says Potts. These tools were designed for specific purposes — some were used as blades, some as scrapers or spear heads. Scientists reported their findings in three studies published in Science.[Source: Rhitu Chatterjee, NPR.org, March 15, 2018 +++]
“The new studies also show that by 320,000 years ago this technology was well established in the region, suggesting that human ancestors likely started developing it even earlier. It is the full-blown Middle Stone Age," Lahr says. "They have stone tools that are small, that are prepared and retouched, that are made with technique thought to come hundreds of thousands of years later." +++
“The diversity of stone tools from the Middle Stone Age suggests advanced thinking and planning. "The flakes are being much more carefully prepared for a particular purpose," says Alison Brooks, an anthropologist at George Washington University and an author of the three studies. "They are fairly small in size, compared to the technology of earlier people. And in addition, they are made with much finer grained material," which allowed them to better control shapes and sizes of the stone tools."We see the ability to produce small triangular points, that look like they were projectile points," says Potts. "They were tapered at the end, so that could have been put on the shaft of something that flew through the air." In other words, a potentially lethal spear. +++
“So our ancestors likely shifted from scavenging to hunting. An analysis of the fossilized animal bones found in the sediments show that people in that period were eating a range of mammals — which were by now much smaller, and closer in size to the animals of today — including hares, rabbits and springbok and even a couple of species of birds and fishes, says Brooks. And they weren't just picking up nearby stones to create their weapons. Earlier hand axes were made primarily from volcanic basalt, sourced within 2 to 2.5 miles of where these humans lived. The latter weapons were made of stones like obsidian, which originated far from Olorgesailie. A small stone point made of non-local obsidian. The chemical composition of the artifact matches obsidian sources as far as 55 miles away. "That black obsidian, that rare rock was being transported, brought in in chunks, from 15 to 30 miles away," says Potts. "We have a couple of rocks that were brought from up to 55 miles away." +++
“These distances are far greater than what modern-day hunter gatherers travel over the course of a year, he says. "They weren't just traveling long distances and chipping rocks as they go," he adds. "If they did that, then there would have just been small chips of obsidian left at the archaeological sites where we dig. Instead we see large pieces of raw material coming in. The rocks were shaped at Olorgesaile itself." That kind of exchange of raw materials is a tell-tale sign of exchange between different groups of people, the scientists say. "In the Middle Stone Age, we begin to see the early stages of social networks, of being aware of another group and exchanging rocks over longer distances." Potts and his colleagues also find evidence of exchange of brightly colored red and black rocks that were then drilled into, possibly to extract pigment. This is the earliest evidence of the extraction of pigments, says Lahr. It's also evidence of a complex culture, where the ancient humans probably used pigments symbolically — perhaps to paint themselves, or their hides, or weapons. And where different groups exchanged raw materials (and possibly food). +++
“There's that same kind of exchange today, says Brooks, referring to hunter gatherer groups like the Hadza people of northern Tanzania. "They deliberately maintain distant contacts with people in these other groups," she says. They have strategies to maintain these contacts — either by encouraging their children to marry into these other groups, or they take trips to visit the groups, to maintain ties by giving gifts. "It's a way of building up these distant contacts, which are extremely important for their survival." During times of stress, when food or water is scarce, people from one group can disperse and take shelter with other groups that they've cultivated a relationship with. "So the networks are like money in the bank, or wheat in your silo or cows in your barn," says Brooks. "They don't have any other way of saving for a rainy day." +++
“And as she and her colleagues show, the beginning of the Middle Stone Age in Kenya was preceded by a long and tumultuous phase in the region. "Things were going haywire, in terms of the development of geological faults, earthquake activity that moved the low places high and the high places low," says Potts. "It changed the shape of the landscape." This was accompanied by repeated cycles of droughts and high rainfall. "And it is precisely during those time periods that we expect to see hunting and gathering people to move further distances," says Potts, "and to begin to nurture relationships with groups beyond their own group." It is no different than what humans all over the world do today, he adds. When times are tough, we look for greener pastures. The archaeological records from the Middle Stone Age at Olorgesailie reveal "the roots of that kind of migration," he says.” +++
Hominin Practiced Recycling?
In 2013, Associated Press reported: “There is mounting evidence that hundreds of thousands of years ago, our prehistoric ancestors learned to recycle the objects they used in their daily lives, say researchers gathered at an international conference in Israel. "For the first time we are revealing the extent of this phenomenon, both in terms of the amount of recycling that went on and the different methods used," said Ran Barkai, an archaeologist and one of the organizers of the four-day gathering at Tel Aviv University” in October 2013. [Source: Associated Press, October 11, 2013 +++]
“Just as today we recycle materials such as paper and plastic to manufacture new items, early hominins would collect discarded or broken tools made of flint and bone to create new utensils, Barkai said. The behavior "appeared at different times, in different places, with different methods according to the context and the availability of raw materials," he told The Associated Press. From caves in Spain and North Africa to sites in Italy and Israel, archaeologists have been finding such recycled tools in recent years. The conference, titled "The Origins of Recycling," gathered nearly 50 scholars from about 10 countries to compare notes and figure out what the phenomenon meant for our ancestors. +++
“Recycling was widespread not only among early humans but among our evolutionary predecessors such as Homo erectus, Neanderthals and other species of hominins that have not yet even been named, Barkai said. Avi Gopher, a Tel Aviv University archaeologist, said the early appearance of recycling highlights its role as a basic survival strategy. While they may not have been driven by concerns over pollution and the environment, hominins shared some of our motivations, he said. "Why do we recycle plastic? To conserve energy and raw materials," Gopher said. "In the same way, if you recycled flint you didn't have to go all the way to the quarry to get more, so you conserved your energy and saved on the material." +++
“Some participants argued that scholars should be cautious to draw parallels between this ancient behavior and the current forms of systematic recycling, driven by mass production and environmental concerns. "It is very useful to think about prehistoric recycling," said Daniel Amick, a professor of anthropology at Chicago's Loyola University. "But I think that when they recycled they did so on an 'ad hoc' basis, when the need arose."” +++
Examples of Hominin Recycling?
According to Associated Press: “Some cases may date as far back as 1.3 million years ago, according to finds in Fuente Nueva, on the shores of a prehistoric lake in southern Spain, said Deborah Barsky, an archaeologist with the University of Tarragona. Here there was only basic reworking of flint and it was hard to tell whether this was really recycling, she said. "I think it was just something you picked up unconsciously and used to make something else," Barsky said. "Only after years and years does this become systematic." [Source: Associated Press, October 11, 2013 +++]
“That started happening about half a million years ago or later, scholars said. For example, a dry pond in Castel di Guido, near Rome, has yielded bone tools used some 300,000 years ago by Neanderthals who hunted or scavenged elephant carcasses there, said Giovanni Boschian, a geologist from the University of Pisa. "We find several levels of reuse and recycling," he said. "The bones were shattered to extract the marrow, then the fragments were shaped into tools, abandoned, and finally reworked to be used again." +++
“At other sites, stone hand-axes and discarded flint flakes would often function as core material to create smaller tools like blades and scrapers. Sometimes hominins found a use even for the tiny flakes that flew off the stone during the knapping process. At Qesem cave, a site near Tel Aviv dating back to between 200,000 and 420,000 years ago, Gopher and Barkai uncovered flint chips that had been reshaped into small blades to cut meat - a primitive form of cutlery. Some 10 percent of the tools found at the site were recycled in some way, Gopher said. "It was not an occasional behavior; it was part of the way they did things, part of their way of life," he said. +++
“He said scientists have various ways to determine if a tool was recycled. They can find direct evidence of retouching and reuse, or they can look at the object's patina - a progressive discoloration that occurs once stone is exposed to the elements. Differences in the patina indicate that a fresh layer of material was exposed hundreds or thousands of years after the tool's first incarnation.” +++
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, engravings from Science News, Spanish hand ax, Nature
Text Sources: National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Nature, Scientific American. Live Science, Discover magazine, Discovery News, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, BBC, The Guardian, Reuters, AP, AFP and various books and other publications.
Last updated September 2018