20120202-1.7 million years old tools Ethiopia.jpg
1.7 million years old tools from Ethiopia
Toolmaking, which occurred about 3.4 million years ago, is regarded as the second major step in the development of our human ancestors. Bipedalism (moving on two legs) is regarded as first major step. It occurred between three million and seven million years ago. Some animals use and carry tools (See Below), but the act of making — deliberately fashioning — them is thought to be uniquely human.

Stone toolmaking is defined as the deliberate fashioning of a stone into a tool to perform specific tasks as opposed to simply picking up a handy rock and throwing it or bashing something with it. Toolmaking requires some skill. Flaking obsidian, for example, is very difficult.

Toolmaking, diet and brain size are all believed to have had an influence on each other. Increased brain size may have lead to tool making and better food gathering strategies, which in turn led to a better quality diet that allowed a small digestive system, which in turn freed energy for the development of an even larger brain.

Archaeologists recognize four kinds of tools, listed here in ascending order of development: 1) choppers, crude tools made by shearing one or a few pieces off a stone; 2) flake tools, implements made with numerous flakes, or small pieces chiseled off; 3) crude biface tools , ax-like tools or tools with a point made from stone, wood antler or bone that are fashioned by chipping way material from two or more sides; and 4) hand axes, which are similar to biface tools except they are made with more advanced skills. Sophisticated Acheulean hand axes are named after a French site. They were also produced in Africa and the Middle East. [Source: World Almanac]

Early man probably made tools with sticks, wood, horn and other perishable materials that rotted not long after they were used and thus escaped fossilization. The early Australopithecus species were believed to have used tools like bits of horn for digging and sticks for fishing out termites and other insects (as chimps and some birds do today). [Source: Michael Lemonick, Time, March 14, 1994]

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.

Stone Tool Terminology

Homo Erectus tool from China

Stone tools are the oldest surviving type of tool made by hominin, our early human ancestors. It is likely that bone and wooden tools were used quite early, but organic materials deteriorates with time and doesn’t survive like stone. Archaeologists sometimes use the term 'lithics' to refer to all artifacts made of stone. [Source: K. Kris Hirst, Thought.com, March 8, 2017]

Artifact: An artifact (also spelled artefact) is an object or remainder of an object, which was created, adapted, or used by humans. The word artifact can refer to almost anything found at an archaeological site, including everything from landscape patterns to the tiniest of trace elements clinging to a potsherd: all stone tools are artifacts.[Source: K. Kris Hirst, Thought.com, March 8, 2017]

A geofact is a piece of stone with seemingly human-made edges have been naturally broken or eroded, as opposed being shaped, modified or broken on purpose by humans or hominins. If artifacts are products of human behaviors, geofacts are products of natural forces. Distinguishing between artifacts and geofacts can be difficult. It can also be difficult distinguishing between marks made artifacts and those made geofactsm animals or natural occurrances.

An assemblage or haul refers to the entire collection of artifacts recovered from a single site. Material culture is used in archaeology and other anthropology-related fields to refer to all the corporeal, tangible objects that are created, used, kept and left behind by past and present cultures.

Stone Tool Technology

Chipped stone tools are made by knapping — which means shaping a piece of stone such as flint by striking it. Chert, flint, obsidian, silcrete or similar stone are typically knapped by flaking off pieces with a hammerstone, often made of a similar or harder material. A hammerstone is the name for an object used like a hammer knap off or make fractures on another object. Debitage [pronounced DEB-ih-tahzhs] is the collective term used archaeologists to refer to the sharp-edged waste material left over when someone makes a stone tool. It is usually knaps of flint. [Source: K. Kris Hirst, Thought.com, March 8, 2017]

1.8-million-year-old tool from Dmanisi, Georgia

Archaeologists classify stone tools into industries (also known as complexes or technocomplexes) that share distinctive technological or morphological characteristics. In 1969 in the 2nd edition of World Prehistory, Grahame Clark proposed an evolutionary progression of flint-knapping in which the "dominant lithic technologies" occurred in a fixed sequence from Mode 1 through Mode 5. He assigned to them relative dates: Modes 1 and 2 to the Lower Palaeolithic (300,000 to 70,000 years ago), 3 to the Middle Palaeolithic (70,000 to 35,000 years ago), 4 to the Upper Palaeolithic (35,000 years ago to 12,000 B.C.) and 5 to the Mesolithic (12,000 to 10,000 B.C.) . They were not to be conceived, however, as either universal—that is, they did not account for all lithic technology; or as synchronous—they were not in effect in different regions simultaneously. Mode 1, for example, was in use in Europe long after it had been replaced by Mode 2 in Africa. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Clark's scheme was adopted enthusiastically by the archaeological community. One of its advantages was the simplicity of terminology; for example, the Mode 1 / Mode 2 Transition. The transitions are currently of greatest interest. Consequently, in the literature the stone tools used in the period of the Palaeolithic are divided into four "modes", each of which designate a different form of complexity, and which in most cases followed a rough chronological order. Pre-Mode I

Chipped Stone Tool Types

Scrapers are chipped stone artifact that has been purposefully shaped with one or more sharp edges. Scrapers come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and may be carefully shaped and prepared, or simply a stone with a knapped off sharp edge. Scrapers are often used to do things like clean animals hides, butcher animal flesh, or process plant materials.

Types of scrapers 1) A burin is a scraper with a steeply notched cutting edge. 2) A denticulate is a scraper with small notched edges that protrude out like teeth. 3) A turtle backed scraper looks like a turtle when viewed from the side. One side is humped like a turtle's shell, while the other is flat. Often associated with animal hideworking. 4) A spokeshave is a scraper with a concave scraping edge

Arrowheads- Projectile Points: Archaeologists prefer the term projectile point to arrowhead to describe a stone tool fixed to the end of a shaft and shot as an arrow or any object affixed to a pole or stick of some kind, which has been fashioned for use as a weapon. Made from stone, metal, bone, or other material, projectile points have typically been used to hunt animals for food but has also been used by humans to attack or defend from attacks by other humans.

Handaxes, often referred to as Acheulean or Achuelian handaxes, are the oldest recognized stone tools. They were used between 1.7 million and 100,000 years ago. An adze (sometimes spelled adz) is a wood-working tool, similar to an axe or hachet. The shape of the adze is broadly rectangular like an axe, but the blade is attached at a right-angle to the handle rather than straight across.

Blades are chipped stone tools which are always at least twice as long as they are wide with sharp edges on the long edges.

chopping too

Other Types of Stone Tools

Drills with pointed ends and gimlets (small screw-tipped tools) are blades or flakes which have been modified for boring holes They can be identified by wear and tear on the working end and are often associated with bead making. [Source: K. Kris Hirst, Thought.com, March 8, 2017]

Tools made from ground stone, such as basalt, granite and other heavy, coarse stones, were ground, pecked, and/or polished into desired shapes. A grinding stone is a stone with a carved or pecked or ground indentation in which domesticated plants such as wheat or barley or wild ones such as nuts and were ground into flour.

The atlatl is a sophisticated combination hunting tool or weapon, formed out of a short dart with a point socketed into a longer shaft. A leather strap hooked at the far end allowed the hunter to fling the atlatl over her shoulder, the pointed dart flying off in a deadly and accurate manner, from a safe distance.

Early Hominins, Termite Munching Tools and Killer Females

20120202-Olduvai_stone chopping tool.JPG
2-million-year-old Oldowan
stone chopping tool
Paleoanthropologist Lee Berger believes early hominins licked long blades of grass and then stuck them into the hole of a termite colony and then pulled out with full of termites. Termites are very nutritious. They have more calories for their weight than beef. After munching on a few termites, Berger told National Geographic, "Mmmm, like herbs. They're good when you're really hot. They have all this acid in them, and it makes your mouth water...They're pretty high in protein." Gore tried one, saying: "A crunch between the front teeth, a squirt, and an aftertaste I find more astringent than mmmm ."

The earliest known bone tools were used to fish out termites. Thousands of such tools have been found at the Swartkans and Sterkfontein sites in South Africa. Dated to between 1.8 millions years ago, they are believed to have been used by Australopithecus robustus. The bones are similar in size and shape and have distinctive markings made from poking them into termite mounds.

Based on observations of female chimpanzees, Jill Pruetz and Paco Bertolani of Iowa State University, theorized in a February 2007 article in the journal Current Biology that early women may have played a central role in early weapon making, perhaps to compensate for being smaller size than males. Female chimpanzees in Senegal have been seen gnawing at the end of sticks, making primitive spears which they use to hunt bush babies, small primates.

Bertolani saw a female chimp use a spear to stab a bush baby as it slept in a hollow tree and pull it out and eat it (another 21 attempts at similar kill were unsuccessful). Males were never seen using the technique. Pruetz told the Times of London, “Females have to come up with creative ways at getting at a problem, whereas males have brawn. The observation that individuals hunting with tools includes females and immature chimpanzees suggests that we should rethink traditional explanations for the evolution of such behavior in our own lineage.”

Toolmakers and Users in the Animal Kingdom

There are many examples of tool-using animals. Egyptian vultures drop stones on ostrich eggs to crack them open; elephants use sticks to rub their backs; chimpanzees and monkeys use rocks to open nuts; sea otters sometimes break open shells with rocks; and gorillas and orangutans use branches to pull down limbs with fruit.

The woodpecker finch uses a twig as a tool with extraordinary skill. First it searches around for a twig that is the right size and strength. Once it finds one it likes it jabs the twig into a hole like a lance and maneuvers it around to pry out grubs deep inside the tree, far beyond reach of its beak. Some finches, once they've found a twig they like, carry it around from tree to tree. According to researchers only about one out of five woodpecker finches have mastered the technique.♦

In 2001, Betty, a New Caledonian crow kept in the aviary at Oxford University, was the subject of an experiment to find if she would take a straight tool or a hooked one to fetch as tiny bucket with meat inside. When the hooked tool was accidently knocked away Betty took the straight tool and methodically bent it to make a hook which she used to retrieve the bucket.

In December 2009, scientists at Melbourne’s Victoria Museum released a photograph of an octopus with its legs wrapped around a coconut shell, which it used to protect itself on the sea floor. The scientists said the octopus carries the shell with it and uses it as armor in what the scientists said was the first known example of an invertebrate using tools.

Who Made the First Hominin Tools?

Who made the first hominin tools? Some scientists believe that “ Australopithecus “ species may have used tools. Other scientists argue that their brains were not developed enough for toolmaking, Since many of the tools were not found near any particular set of bones it is difficult to say unequivocally which species of hominin used the tools.

Australopithecus tools are thought to have been pebble tools, roughly chipped into sharp edge. Flint has been identified as the stone that gives best results. The 2.6 million-year-old flaked scraping tools and bone fragments found in the Gona region have been linked to “Australopithecus garhi” because Australopithecus garhi remains have been found relatively nearby and the remains have been dated to around the same time as tools.

It is not clear who made the Olduvai tools. “Homo habilis” remains were found nearby but were thought to have emerged 2.5 million years ago, 100,000 years after the tools. Tools resembling those found at Olduvai Gorge have been found on the western side of the Great Rift Valley in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formally Zaire) near the shores of Lake Edward. No hominin bones have been found yet however. See Homo habilis.

What Were the First Hominin Tools

There has been some debate over what actually were the first tools: the cores that had flakes chipped off them or the flakes themselves. The sharp edge seems to be the most desired trait of early stone tools and flakes often had sharper edges than the cores and were easier to make. Berkeley anthropologist Dr. Nicholas Toth told the New York Times, "the easy but now erroneous inference was that because of their different shapes, the cores were the tools." He reasoned that the sharp flakes were the tools because a rock blade becomes dull after about five minutes of cutting an animal hide. When a new blade is needed it is much easier to hammer off a flake than carve an elaborate tool. When people think of stone," he said, "they think primitive, not functional, but you can’t get anything sharper than a flake." [Source: Brenda Fowler, New York Times, December 20, 1994]

Toth told the New York Times tool used caused physiological changes in the tool users. He said that as homonids started using tools and becoming carnivores, they began to "produce simulated biological organs’slashing, crushing organs...You see a reduction in the size of the teeth and jaws because we're replacing biology through technology."

By observing how the flakes were chipped off the core Toth figures that 56 percent of them had right-handed features and 44 percent had left features. Modern humans, which are about 90 percent right-handed, are the only known animals to have such a strong preference for one hand. Toth believes that early man had brains dominated by either the right or left hemisphere.

Early Hominin Tools and Scavenging for Food

Recreating early tools
Early tools were probably used to cut meat and hides, dig up roots and tubers and smash bones in order to extract the fat-rich marrow. Some scientists believe that early tool users survived off the marrow and brains extracted from the smashed bones and skulls of scavenged animals.

These scientists believe that early toolmaker was not able to hunt and large game such as antelopes like lions and leopard. Perhaps they suggest early tool users were scavengers that used their intelligence to outwit other scavengers like hyenas and jackals. Perhaps they used tools to quickly butcher, haul off and stash carcasses before competitors could get to them.

The reasoning goes early toolmaker feed on the bone marrow of scavenged animals such as wildebeest killed by lions. These hominins were able to break open the bones with their tools, something competing scavengers were not able to do. The fatty marrow from two wildebeest legs would have provided enough calories to keep the early toolmakers going for an entire day.

Recreating Early Tools

Homo habilis
Toth has made stone tools similar to those used by early man and used them to butcher an elephant that had died of natural causes. The flaked flint ax easily cut through the centimeter thick hide. Two men were able to butcher 100 pounds in an hour but after that the time the tools were so dull they needed resharpening. [Source: Kenneth Weaver, National Geographic, November 1985 [┹]

A team led by Helene Roche, an archaeologist from the University of Paris, pieced together 2,000 flakes from a 2.3 million-year-old site in the Rift Valley in Kenya into 60 reconstructions of original stones. Roche told AP, "It's not like they were just randomly whacking and knocking off whatever happened to come off." Roche stuck rocks to see what kinds of flakes were produced. If they weren't any good they were discarded. Her research shows that early man knew where to begin striking and how best to chip off pieces to achieve a sharp edge.

Scientists have been able to figure what tools were used for by examining wear on recreated tools produced by different materials under microscopes and comparing the wear marks to similar marks found on fossil tools. Tools used to cut meat, for example, show different wear patterns than those to work wood. Tools used to scrape hides show war patterns caused by repeated rubbing along skins.

In a groundbreaking experiment to investigate early tool use a pygmy chimpanzee, named Kanzi, made small flakes which he used to cut a rope on a box to get a banana inside. Within a month he learned how to strike the round core with a round hammer to produce a flake and later devised his own method in which he threw the cores on a hard tile floor. After a couple of tries usually a flake good enough to use as a blade broke off. One skill mastered by early homonids that Kanzi couldn't learn was that flakes chipped off at angles produced better blades.

Early Tools from Ethiopia

The earliest tools were choppers and scrappers. For a long time the oldest recognized hominin tool was a 2.6 million-year-old flaked scraping tool found in the Gona region of Ethiopia by a team lead by Sileshi Semaw, an Ethiopian archaeologist now at Indiana University. It is not known who used the tools. Scientists believed it was Australopithecus garhi. See Australopithecus garhi.

The tools were probably used to break open bones and scrape out the marrow and perhaps to cut meat off the bones. Before this no tools had been linked with australopithecines before. Leg bone of other animals found near the tools had cut and chip marks and signs of hammering.

In 2003, Semaw’s team found 2.6 million-year-old tools among bone fragments in the Gona area. Believed to have been used to cut up meat, the tools, scientists say, shed some light on which came first tools or better diets. Semaw told the New York Times, “I believe the stone tools came first and the larger brain came later with a more substantial meat diet.”

An antelope jaw with cut marks, indicating its tongue was sliced out with a sharp stone flake was found on the Bouri Peninsuala in Lake Yardi in Ethiopia. The bones, dated to 2.5 million years ago, suggest the toolmakers used tools to scavenge meat and marrow from large animals. Curiously though no actual tools were found at the site. The discovery nearby of “Australopithecus garhi” bones indicate it again was the most likely the tool maker.

Oldowan Tools

20120202-Olduvai stone chopping tool.jpg
Olduvai stone chopping tool
Tools, now called Olduvai tools, were found in 2.6 million-year-old strata in forty-mile long Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania. Early Olduvan tools consist of flakes of chipped rock and cores of chipped rock from which the flakes were chipped. The tools are distinguishable from naturally chipped stones because they contain the marks of repeated blows. Ethiopian archaeologist Yonas Beyene told National Geographic, "The hominins picked up one stone and broke it with another. That gave them a sharp cutting edge that could pass through animal hide’something hominin teeth could not do."

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 /+]

1 million year old Oldowan tool

“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”. /+\

Acheulean Tools

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 +]

Acheulean tool

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 perform 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

1.76 million year old tool 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

Acheulean tool 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

Lower Paleolithic tools

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.” +++

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons except 1.76 million year old ax, Columbia University

Text Sources: National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Nature, Scientific American. Live Science, Discover magazine, Discovery News, 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

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