Scientists have discovered the oldest recorded stone tool ever to be found in Turkey, revealing that humans passed through the gateway from Asia to Europe much earlier than previously thought, approximately 1.2 million years ago.
According to research published in the journal Quaternary Science Reviews , the chance find of a humanly-worked quartzite flake, in ancient deposits of the river Gediz, in western Turkey, provides a major new insight into when and how early humans dispersed out of Africa and Asia.
The Gediz River, Turkey, where the stone tool was found ( Wikimedia Commons )
Researchers from Royal Holloway, University of London, together with an international team from the UK, Turkey and the Netherlands, used high-precision equipment to date the deposits of the ancient river meander, giving the first accurate timeframe for when humans occupied the area.
Professor Danielle Schreve, from the Department of Geography at Royal Holloway, said: "This discovery is critical for establishing the timing and route of early human dispersal into Europe. Our research suggests that the flake is the earliest securely-dated artefact from Turkey ever recorded and was dropped on the floodplain by an early hominin well over a million years ago."
The researchers used high-precision radioisotopic dating and palaeomagnetic measurements from lava flows, which both pre-date and post-date the meander, to establish that early humans were present in the area between approximately 1.24 million and 1.17 million years ago. Previously, the oldest hominin fossils in western Turkey were recovered in 2007 at Koçabas, but the dating of these and other stone tool finds were uncertain.
"The flake was an incredibly exciting find," Professor Schreve said. "I had been studying the sediments in the meander bend and my eye was drawn to a pinkish stone on the surface. When I turned it over for a better look, the features of a humanly-struck artefact were immediately apparent.
"By working together with geologists and dating specialists, we have been able to put a secure chronology to this find and shed new light on the behaviour of our most distant ancestors."
Featured image: Stone tool approximately 1.2 million years old. Credit: Image courtesy of University of Royal Holloway London.
Source: University of Royal Holloway London. "Oldest stone tool ever found in Turkey discovered." ScienceDaily. 23 December 2014.
A stone tool is, in the most general sense, any tool made either partially or entirely out of stone. Although stone tool-dependent societies and cultures still exist today, most stone tools are associated with prehistoric (particularly Stone Age) cultures that have become extinct. Archaeologists often study such prehistoric societies, and refer to the study of stone tools as lithic analysis. Ethnoarchaeology has been a valuable research field in order to further the understanding and cultural implications of stone tool use and manufacture. 
Stone has been used to make a wide variety of different tools throughout history, including arrowheads, spearheads, and querns. Stone tools may be made of either ground stone or chipped stone, and a person who creates tools out of the latter is known as a flintknapper.
Chipped stone tools are made from cryptocrystalline materials such as chert or flint, radiolarite, chalcedony, obsidian, basalt, and quartzite via a process known as lithic reduction. One simple form of reduction is to strike stone flakes from a nucleus (core) of material using a hammerstone or similar hard hammer fabricator. If the goal of the reduction strategy is to produce flakes, the remnant lithic core may be discarded once it has become too small to use. In some strategies, however, a flintknapper reduces the core to a rough unifacial, or bifacial preform, which is further reduced using soft hammer flaking techniques or by pressure flaking the edges.
More complex forms of reduction include the production of highly standardized blades, which can then be fashioned into a variety of tools such as scrapers, knives, sickles, and microliths. In general terms, chipped stone tools are nearly ubiquitous in all pre-metal-using societies because they are easily manufactured, the tool stone is usually plentiful, and they are easy to transport and sharpen.
One of The Earliest Stone Tool Types Could Date Back 2.6 Million Years, New Data Show
Figuring out when the earliest human species first developed and used stone tools is an important task for anthropologists, since it was such an important evolutionary step. Remarkably, the projected date of early stone technology just got pushed back by tens of thousands of years.
Using a recently introduced type of statistical analysis, researchers estimated the proportion of stone tool artifacts that might be lying undiscovered based on what has been dug up so far. In turn, this gives us clues about how old the tool remnants we don't yet know about are likely to be.
These calculations reveal that ancient hominins may have been using basic Oldowan tools 2.617-2.644 million years ago (up to 63,000 years earlier than previous findings suggest), and the slightly more sophisticated Acheulean tools may have been used 1.815-1.823 million years ago (at least 55,000 years earlier than previously thought).
"Our research provides the best possible estimates for understanding when hominins first produced these stone tool types," says paleolithic archaeologist Alastair Key from the University of Kent in the UK.
"This is important for multiple reasons, but for me at least, it is most exciting because it highlights that there are likely to be substantial portions of the artifact record waiting to be discovered."
The optimal linear estimation (OLE) statistical analysis applied here has already been deployed to judge how long species carried on living before extinction, based on the most recent fossils that have been found. The process has been shown to be reasonably accurate, and in this study it was used in reverse.
It's unlikely that the oldest stone tools that archaeologists have dug up so far are in fact the oldest that were ever used – experts think many are lost forever, and dating what does get found is difficult – but OLE offers a way to extrapolate from existing artifacts.
While OLE is still an emerging approach in archaeology, the researchers behind the new study are hoping that it becomes more widely accepted. While the best points of reference are still real findings in the field, these physical discoveries don't tell the full story of what was actually going on millions of years ago.
"The optimal linear estimation modeling technique was originally developed by myself and a colleague to date extinctions," says conservation scientist David Roberts, from the University of Kent.
"It has proved to be a reliable method of inferring the timing of species extinction and is based on the timings of last sightings, and so to apply it to the first sightings of archaeological artifacts was another exciting breakthrough."
The ability of hominins to chip away at stones and use them for specific purposes opened up new horizons for these early humans: in terms of what they could hunt, what they could build, how they could work with food and materials, and so on. It's been called a "momentous threshold" in human evolution.
To give you an idea of how long ago we're talking about, it's been suggested that the first use of stone tools predates the development of opposable thumbs in hominins: we were smashing rocks before we could properly get a grip on anything.
The oldest stone tools ever found actually date back 3.3 million years, discovered at the Lomekwi site in Kenya. While there isn't enough material at this site to run an OLE analysis, the researchers think stone tool use could go back even further than that – though they also admit that their estimations are likely to change as further digs and discoveries are made.
"Identifying when hominins first produced Lomekwian, Oldowan, and Acheulean technologies is vital to multiple avenues of human origins research," write the researchers in their published paper.
The research has been published in the Journal of Human Evolution.
Oldowan and Acheulean Stone Tools
The Oldowan is the oldest-known stone tool industry. Dating as far back as 2.5 million years ago, these tools are a major milestone in human evolutionary history: the earliest evidence of cultural behavior. Homo habilis, an ancestor of Homo sapiens, manufactured Oldowan tools.
First discovered at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, Oldowan artifacts have been recovered from several localities in eastern, central, and southern Africa, the oldest of which is a site at Gona, Ethiopia. Oldowan technology is typified by what are known as "choppers." Choppers are stone cores with flakes removed from part of the surface, creating a sharpened edge that was used for cutting, chopping, and scraping (image 1985–0235). Microscopic surface analysis of the flakes struck from cores has shown that some of these flakes were also used as tools for cutting plants and butchering animals.
1.6 million to 200,000 years ago
The Acheulean tradition constituted a veritable revolution in stone-age technology. Acheulean stone tools - named after the site of St. Acheul on the Somme River in France where artifacts from this tradition were first discovered in 1847 - have been found over an immense area of the Old World. Reports of handaxe discoveries span an area extending from southern Africa to northern Europe and from western Europe to the Indian sub-continent.
Acheulean stone tools are the products of Homo erectus, a closer ancestor to modern humans. Not only are the Acheulean tools found over the largest area, but it is also the longest-running industry, lasting for over a million years. The earliest known Acheulean artifacts from Africa have been dated to 1.6 million years ago. The oldest Acheulean sites in India are only slightly younger than those in Africa. In Europe, the earliest Acheulean tools appear just after 800,000 years ago, as H. erectus moved north out of Africa.
Acheulean technology is best characterized by its distinctive stone handaxes. These handaxes are pear shaped, teardrop shaped, or rounded in outline, usually 12–20 cm long and flaked over at least part of the surface of each side (bifacial). There is considerable variation in size and quality of workmanship.
Acheulean handaxes were multi-purpose tools used in a variety of tasks. Studies of surface-wear patterns reveal the uses of the handaxe included the butchering and skinning of game, digging in soil, and cutting wood or other plant materials. Additionally, Acheulean tools are sometimes found with animal bones that show signs of having been butchered.
The handaxe was not the only target of the Acheulean manufacturing process. Like the Oldowan, the flakes struck off the stone core in creating the handaxe were also used as scrapers and cutting instruments (image 70–15). Later Acheulean industry, employed the Levallois technique that yielded flakes of preplanned shape and size, greatly improved the efficiency and utility of flakes as tools (image 74-18).
Museum of Anthropology Collection
The African handaxes in the Museum of Anthropology collection at the University of Missouri are from southern and northern Africa. The oldest artifact (image 1980–1008), from the Sahara, dates between 1,750,000 and 800,000 years ago. Others from the Sahara date from 500,000 and 400,000 years ago (images 1980–1010 & 1980–1013, respectively). Another handaxe is from the early stone age (image 1985–0236).
It should be noted that not all of the European handaxes are Acheulean, as the production of handaxes continued into the early phases of the following stone tool traditions in both Africa and Europe. A handaxe from St. Acheul, France, has a recorded date of 500,000 B.P. (image 1980–1009 see also image 1980–1011, 1980–1012 & 1980–1014 for artifacts with similar dates). Another from the lower station of the famous site of Le Moustier, France, is dated to 400,000 B.P. and shows definite evidence of the Levallois flaking technique (image 1980–1015). Also found at Le Moustier are handaxes from the Mousterian - the stone tool industry of Homo neanderthalensis (Neandertals) - which began around 200,000 years ago and lasted until about 40,000 years ago in Europe and parts of Asia (image 1980–1016).
The Oldowan and Acheulean artifacts in the University of Missouri Museum of Anthropology collection are representative of an important breakthrough in early human prehistory. For at least the past two and a half million years, the ability to make and use tools is a skill that has enabled humankind to thrive by making increasingly more efficient use of the resources in the environment. For the majority of this time, two of the most important tools have been the Oldowan chopper and the Acheulean handaxe.
Dr. Charles A. Ellwood and Dr. David Price Williams of the Swaziland Archaeological Research Association generously donated artifacts described in this gallery.
Keely, Lawrence H. & Nicholas Toth. 1981. Microwear polishes on early stone tools from Koobi Fora, Kenya. Nature 293: 464-65.
Leakey, Mary. D. 1976. A summary and discussion of the archaeological evidence from bed I and bed II , Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania. In G. L. Isaac & E. McCown (eds.), Human origins: Louis Leakey and the East African evidence (pp. 431-59). Menlo Park: Staples Press.
Phillipson, David W. 1993. African archaeology, 2nd edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Semaw, S., Renne, P., Harris, J. W. K., Feibel, C. S., Bernor, R. L., Fesseha, N. & K. Mowbray. 1997. 2.5-million-year-old stone tools from Gona, Ethiopia. Nature 385: 333-36.
Toth, Nicholas. 1985. The Oldowan reassessed: a close look at early stone artifacts. Journal of Archaeological Science 2: 101-20.
Wynn, Thomas & Forrest Tierson. 1990. Regional Comparison of the Shapes of Later Acheulean Handaxes. American Anthropologist 92: 73-84.
Oldest flaked stone tools point to the repeated invention of stone tools
A new archaeological site discovered by an international and local team of scientists working in Ethiopia shows that the origins of stone tool production are older than 2.58 million years ago. Previously, the oldest evidence for systematic stone tool production and use was 2.58 to 2.55 million years ago.
Analysis by the researchers of early stone age sites, published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests that stone tools may have been invented many times in many ways before becoming an essential part of the human lineage.
The excavation site, known as Bokol Dora 1 or BD 1, is close to the 2013 discovery of the oldest fossil attributed to our genus Homo discovered at Ledi-Geraru in the Afar region of northeastern Ethiopia. The fossil, a jaw bone, dates to about 2.78 million years ago, some 200,000 years before the then oldest flaked stone tools. The Ledi-Geraru team has been working for the last five years to find out if there is a connection between the origins of our genus and the origins of systematic stone tool manufacture.
A significant step forward in this search was uncovered when Arizona State University geologist Christopher Campisano saw sharp-edged stone tools sticking out of the sediments on a steep, eroded slope.
"At first we found several artifacts lying on the surface, but we didn't know what sediments they were coming from," says Campisano. "But when I peered over the edge of a small cliff, I saw rocks sticking out from the mudstone face. I scaled up from the bottom using my rock hammer and found two nice stone tools starting to weather out."
It took several years to excavate through meters of sediments by hand before exposing an archaeological layer of animal bones and hundreds of small pieces of chipped stone representing the earliest evidence of our direct ancestors making and using stone knives. The site records a wealth of information about how and when humans began to use stone tools.
Preservation of the artifacts comes from originally being buried close to a water source.
"Looking at the sediments under a microscope, we could see that the site was exposed only for a very short time. These tools were dropped by early humans at the edge of a water source and then quickly buried. The site then stayed that way for millions of years," noted geoarchaeologist Vera Aldeias of the Interdisciplinary Center for Archaeology and Behavioral Evolution at the University of Algarve, Portugal.
Kaye Reed, who studies the site's ecology, is director of the Ledi-Geraru Research Project and a research associate with Arizona State University's Institute of Human Origins along with Campisano, notes that the animals found with these tools were similar to those found only a few kilometers away with the earliest Homo fossils.
"The early humans that made these stone tools lived in a totally different habitat than 'Lucy' did," says Reed. "Lucy" is the nickname for an older species of hominin known as Australopithecus afarensis, which was discovered at the site of Hadar, Ethiopia, about 45 kilometers southwest of the new BD 1 site. "The habitat changed from one of shrubland with occasional trees and riverine forests to open grasslands with few trees. Even the fossil giraffes were eating grass!"
In addition to dating a volcanic ash several meters below the site, project geologists analyzed the magnetic signature of the site's sediments. Over the Earth's history, its magnetic polarity has reversed at intervals that can be identified. Other earlier archaeological sites near the age of BD 1 are in "reversed" polarity sediments. The BD 1 site is in "normal" polarity sediments. The reversal from "normal" to "reversed" happened at about 2.58 million years ago, geologists knew that BD 1 was older than all the previously known sites.
The recent discovery of older hammering or "percussive" stone tools in Kenya dated to 3.3 million years ago, described as "Lomekwian," and butchered bones in Ethiopia shows the deep history of our ancestors making and using tools. However, recent discoveries of tools made by chimpanzees and monkeys have challenged "technological ape" ideas of human origins.
Archaeologists working at the BD 1 site wondered how their new stone tool discovery fit into this increasingly complex picture. What they found was that not only were these new tools the oldest artifacts yet ascribed to the "Oldowan," a technology originally named after finds from Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, but also were distinct from tools made by chimpanzees, monkeys or even earlier human ancestors.
"We expected to see some indication of an evolution from the Lomekwian to these earliest Oldowan tools. Yet when we looked closely at the patterns, there was very little connection to what is known from older archaeological sites or to the tools modern primates are making," said Will Archer of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig and the University of Cape Town.
The major differences appear to be the ability for our ancestors to systematically chip off smaller sharp-edged tools from larger nodules of stone. Chimpanzees and monkeys generally use tools for percussive activities, to hammer and bash food items like nuts and shellfish, which seems to have been the case with the 3.3 million year old Lomekwian tools as well.
Something changed by 2.6 million years ago, and our ancestors became more accurate and skilled at striking the edge of stones to make tools. The BD 1 artifacts captures this shift.
It appears that this shift in tool making occurred around the same time that our ancestor's teeth began to change. This can be seen in the Homo jaw from Ledi-Geraru. As our ancestors began to process food prior to eating using using stone tools, we start to see a reduction in the size of their teeth. Our technology and biology were intimately intertwined even as early as 2.6 million years ago.
The lack of clear connections with earlier stone tool technology suggests that tool use was invented multiple times in the past.
David Braun, an archaeologist with George Washington University and the lead author on the paper, noted, "Given that primate species throughout the world routinely use stone hammers to forage for new resources, it seems very possible that throughout Africa many different human ancestors found new ways of using stone artifacts to extract resources from their environment. If our hypothesis is correct then we would expect to find some type of continuity in artifact form after 2.6 million years ago, but not prior to this time period. We need to find more sites."
By 2.6 million years ago, there appears to be a long-term investment in tool use as part of the human condition.
Continued field investigations at the Ledi-Geraru project area are already producing more insights into the patterns of behavior in our earliest ancestors. New sites have already been found, and the Ledi-Geraru team will begin excavating them this year.
This research was supported by the United States National Science Foundation and the John Templeton Foundation.
This research, "Earliest known Oldowan artifacts at >2.58 Ma from Ledi-Geraru, Ethiopia, highlight early technological diversity," is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
New Discovery Of World's Oldest Stone Tools
This undated image provided by the journal, Nature, shows an archaeological site, near Lake Turkana in Kenya.
Scientists working in East Africa say they've unearthed the oldest stone tools ever found. They were apparently made 500,000 years before the human lineage evolved.
A team led by Sonia Harmand from Stony Brook University in New York found the tools in Kenya, near Lake Turkana. It's an area that's yielded numerous fossils and tools from early humans.
These newly discovered tools have been reliably dated to 3.3 million years ago, according to scientists who've reviewed the research. That's 700,000 years older than the previous record for the oldest stone tools ever found.
That's remarkable because it's well before the human genus, Homo, emerged 2.8 million years ago. So clearly these early humans didn't make these tools. The team presumes they were made by an early ancestor of humans, probably a member of a genus called Australopithecus. The famous ape-like creature known as Lucy was from that genus and first appeared in Africa about four million years ago.
Leading stone tool experts who've seen the tools say they have the markings of a process called "knapping." Knapping a piece of stone produces flakes that can have sharp edges and are useful for working with plants, nuts or meat. These flakes can be distinguished from naturally occurring pieces of rock. Knapping also leaves characteristic marks on the rock from which the flakes are chipped.
Richard Potts, head of the Human Origins Program at the Smithsonian Institution, has examined the tools. He tells NPR they're a "mixed bag," with some quite crude and others a little more sophisticated. Potts says they're not as advanced as most early human-made tools, but "there's no doubt it's purposeful" tool-making. And it's more sophisticated than the kind of tool-making that chimpanzees do, he adds, such as shaping sticks to probe for termites in their underground mounds.
Scientists who study stone tools say it's premature to say that these tools led to the evolution of the first humans, commonly known as Homo habilis, or "handy man" as they are sometimes called. The gap between these tools and the previous oldest known is so long — 700,000 years — suggests that whoever made these newly discovered tools could have died with the knowledge, and stone tools were "reinvented" again hundreds of thousands of years later.
The discovery was announced at a meeting of the Paleoanthropology Society in San Francisco this week. It was first described in the journal Science.
Oldest stone tools pre-date earliest humans
They were unearthed from the shores of Lake Turkana in Kenya, and date to 3.3 million years ago.
They are 700,000 years older than any tools found before, even pre-dating the earliest humans in the Homo genus.
The find, reported in Nature, suggests that more ancient species, such as Australopithecus afarensis or Kenyanthropus platyops, may have been more sophisticated than was thought.
"They are significantly earlier than anything that has been found previously," said Dr Nick Taylor, from the National Centre of Scientific Research (CNRS) in France and the University of Leiden in the Netherlands.
"It's really quite astonishing to think what separates the previous oldest site and this site is 700,000 years of time. It's monumental."
The first tools from the site, which is called Lomekwi 3, were discovered in 2011. They were spotted after researchers took a wrong turn as they walked through the hot, dry Kenyan landscape.
By the end of 2012, a total of 149 tools had been found, and another field trip in 2014 has unearthed more still.
They include sharp flakes of stone, sheared off from larger rocks, which were most likely used for cutting.
Hammers and anvils were also excavated, some of which were huge in size.
"The very largest one we have weighs 15kg, which is massive," Dr Taylor told BBC News.
"On this piece, it doesn't show the signs of actually having been flaked to produce other artefacts. rather, it was probably used as an anvil.
"It probably rested in the soil and the other cobbles brought to the site, which were intended to be smashed apart to make tools, were struck against this large anvil."
Dating of the volcanic ash and minerals around the tools suggests that they are 3.3 million years old.
Until this discovery, the oldest examples of this technology were the Oldowan tools from Tanzania, which date to about 2.6 million years ago.
The researchers say the 700,000-year time difference reveals how manufacturing methods and use changed over time, growing more advanced.
The scientists do not know who made the tools discovered in Kenya.
Until now, some thought that Homo habilis - known as "handy man" - was the earliest of our ancestors in the Homo genus to use tools.
But with Homo fossils dating back to only 2.4-2.3 million years ago, it now seems unlikely that this was the first toolmaker.
Other finds, such as animal bones found in Ethiopia with cut marks that date to 3.39 million years ago, also suggest tool use began before H. habilis.
Scientists now believe the 3.3-million-year-old implements were crafted by another, more primitive species.
Dr Taylor said: "There are a number of possible candidates at present.
"There was a hominin called Kenyanthropus platyops, which has been found very close to where the Lomekwi 3 tools are being excavated. And that hominin was around at the time the tools were being made.
"More widely in the East African region there is another hominin, Australopithecus afarensis, which is famously known from the fossil Lucy, which is another candidate."
Neither of these species was assumed to be particularly intelligent - they had both human and ape-like features, with relatively small brains.
However the tools suggest they may have been smarter than assumed.
Dr Ignacio de la Torre, from University College London's Institute of Archaeology, described this as "a game-changing" find.
"It's the most important discovery in the last 50 years," he told BBC News.
"It suggests that species like Australopithecus might have been intelligent enough to make stone tools - that they had the cognitive and manipulative abilities to carry tasks like this out."
Scientists Are Amazed By Stone Age Tools They Dug Up In Kenya
Assortment of Early and Middle Stone Age tools found in the Olorgesailie Basin, Kenya. The tool at left is a hand axe.
Our ancestors in Kenya's Southern Rift Valley made some pretty innovative tools. And they made them far earlier than previously thought.
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.
This early Stone Age hand axe was excavated at Olorgesailie, Kenya. A chemical analysis of the stone shows it was made with locally available rocks. Jay Reed/NPR hide caption
"I think of the hand axes as the Swiss army knife of the Stone Age," says paleoanthropologist Rick Potts, director of the Human Origins program at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History and one of the lead scientists in a new study by a team of international scientists.
The researchers also found that the next technological revolution, marking the beginning of the Middle Stone Age happened tens of thousands of years earlier than previously thought.
And the researchers think that long periods of stress from repeated earthquakes and cycles of drought and heavy rains may have pushed these early humans to partner up with neighboring communities to come up with ways to cope.
Rick Potts, director of the National Museum of Natural History's Human Origins Program at the Smithsonian. He has been excavating in the Southern Rift Valley in Kenya since the 1980s. Jay Reed hide caption
The team was digging in a region called Olorgesailie in southern Kenya, an area filled with layers of sediment dating back 1.2 million years. The oldest stone tools discovered there are characteristic of what's called the Acheulian culture of the Early Stone Age and consisted mostly of the hand axes.
In this Olorgesailie Basin excavation site, red ocher pigments were found with Middle Stone Age artifacts. This is the earliest evidence of the extraction and use of pigments among ancient humans. Human Origins Program/Smithsonian hide caption
In this Olorgesailie Basin excavation site, red ocher pigments were found with Middle Stone Age artifacts. This is the earliest evidence of the extraction and use of pigments among ancient humans.
Human Origins Program/Smithsonian
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."
The hand axe was a multipurpose tool used by our ancestors for chopping up branches and carcasses as well as digging for tubers. They remained unchanged for several hundred thousand years. Jay Reed/NPR hide caption
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.
But 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. The scientists report their findings in three new studies published Thursday in the journal Science.
"In Olorgesailie, you have the only record of the last million years in Africa," says Marta Mirazon Lahr, a paleoanthropologist who wasn't involved in the new study. And it's "the earliest ever documented Middle Stone Age in the whole continent."
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, she says.
"The technology they have is not a crude, early version of the Middle Stone Age. 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."
Obsidian rock found at Olorgesailie was originally brought by the ancient humans from distant places, some as far away as 50 miles from the site. Scientists think this is evidence of a larger social network of groups of ancient people who stayed in touch and exchanged obsidian and other resources. Jay Reed/NPR hide caption
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. Jay Reed/NPR hide caption
"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).
Red rock found on the site. There is evidence that the rock was drilled to extract its red pigment. Jay Reed/NPR hide caption
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.
'New beginning to the known archaeological record' as oldest stone tools ever discovered found in Kenya
The oldest stone tools have been discovered by archaeologists in Kenya who say they are 3.3m years old – about 700,000 years older than the previous most ancient stone implements.
More than 100 primitive hammers, anvils and other stone artefacts have been unearthed in the desert hills bordering the western shores of Lake Turkana in the Kenyan Rift Valley in a discovery that the researchers claim “marks a new beginning to the known archaeological record”.
The discovery undermines the argument that making stone tools was a defining characteristic of the direct human lineage leading to the emergence of Homo sapiens because it required a unique combination of manual dexterity and cognitive ability.
The stone tools predate the earliest known members of the Homo genus by about half a million years, suggesting that the implements were made by another species of “hominin” – the non-ape human tribe – which may or may not have been one of our direct ancestors, scientists said.
Scientists do not yet know which species made the stone tools but they suggest that a possible candidate is a “flat-faced”, ape-like hominin called Kenyanthropus platyops which was known to have lived in the same place at the same time. But they accept that the toolmaker could also have been another, as-yet undiscovered hominin species.
“This is a momentous and well-researched discovery. I have seen some of these artefacts in the flesh, and I am convinced they were fashioned deliberately,” said Professor Bernard Wood of George Washington University, an expert on early human origins who was not involved in the discovery.
The origin of stone tool-making is seen as crucial to the understanding of human prehistory because ultimately it led to greater social cooperation in hunting and the later evolution of more sophisticated tools and weapons made of flint, wood and animal bone.
Although chimpanzees are known to use stone tools for various purposes, such as nut cracking, the deliberate creation of sharper edges by “knapping” one rock against another is seen as needing far greater dexterity, muscle control and cognitive ability, the scientists said.
Archaeologists discovered the stone artefacts in a previously unexplored area at a known fossil site on the shores of Lake Turkana, which they discovered by accident after taking a wrong turn in the desert one morning in July 2011.
hey went on to discover dozens of large stone tools and tool-making remnants that had been fashioned from nearby rock. A study of the site suggested it was covered in woodland 3.3m years ago, suggesting the tools could have been used for breaking open nuts or tubers, or bashing dead logs to get at the insects inside, the researchers said.
They have called the site Lomekwi 3and have suggested that the type of primate tool-making is known by the name “Lomekwian” to distinguish it from the “Oldowan” tools made 700,000 years later at the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania.
“[They] shed light on an unexpected and previously unknown period of hominin behaviour and can tell us a lot about cognitive development in our ancestors that we can’t understand from fossils alone,” said Sonia Harmand of Stony Brook University in New York, and lead author of the study published in the journal Nature.
Richard Potts, director of Human Origins at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, said: “Researchers have thought there must be some way of flaking stone that preceded the simplest tools known until now. Harmand’s team shows us just what this even simpler altering of rocks looked like before technology became a fundamental part of early human behaviour.”
The oldest Oldowan tools were thought to have been made by an early member of the Homo genus, a species called Homo habilis or “handy man” which lived between 2.1m and 1.5m years ago.
However, earlier this year scientists announced that they had discovered another member of the Homo genus that had lived about 2.8m years ago in the Afar region of Ethiopia – pushing back the human lineage by half a million years but still not far enough back to account for the stone tools at Lomekwi 3.
Extended Data Figure 1 Map and schematic section at LOM3.
a, Map showing xy coordinates of artefacts and fossils recovered in situ and from the surface at the site in 2011 and 2012. b, Schematic section showing vertical distribution of in situ artefacts and those located in the slope deposit at the excavation. Key is the same for both figures.
Extended Data Figure 2 Geology of the LOM3 site.
a, Stratigraphic sections around LOM3 (locations in b), showing relationship of site to marker tuffs and lithofacies. Sections aligned relative to top of flat-pebble conglomerate unit. b, GPS coordinates of stratigraphic sections (WGS84 datum).
Extended Data Figure 3 Paleomagnetic data.
a, Representative vector end-point plots of natural remanent magnetism thermal demagnetization data from specimen Toroto Tuff, tt2, wt59, wt50, wt45, wt36. Open and closed symbols represent the vertical and horizontal projections, respectively, in bedding coordinates. TD treatment steps: NRM, 100°, 150°, 200°, 250°, 300°, 350°, 400°, 450°, 475°, 500°, 525°, 550°, 575°, 600°, 625°, 650°, 660°, 670°, 675°, 680°, 690°, and 700°. V/M = 10 denotes a ∼ 10 cc cubic specimen. b, Equal-area projections for Section 1 (left) and Section 2 (right) of the lower Lomekwi Member (see Fig. 3a). Open and closed symbols are projected onto the upper and lower hemisphere, respectively, in bedding coordinates. Plotted are ChRM sample-mean directions for accepted samples only (that is, those with MAD values <15°). Overall mean directions were calculated after inverting the northerly (normal) directions to common southerly (reverse) polarity.
Extended Data Figure 4 Paleoenvironmental reconstruction through pedogenic carbonate stable carbon isotopic analysis.
a, LOM3 paleosol δ 13 CVPDB values (‰) ± 1σ, number of analyses, fraction woody canopy cover (ƒwc) and percent C4 biomass contribution to soil CO2. Asterisk denotes nodules sampled at the LOM3 site, 2011-2b (see Extended Data Fig. 2a). b, Schematic box and whisker plots of ƒwc from the LOM3 (3.3 Ma, this study) and Gona 33,54,55 (Busidima Fm, 2.5–2.7 Ma) lithic sites and other East African hominin localities from 3.2–3.4 Ma 34,55,56,57,58,59,60,61 relative to UNESCO structural categories of African vegetation 32,52 . Grey box denotes 25th and 75th percentiles (interquartile range) whiskers represent observations within upper and lower fences (1.5 × interquartile range) black line shows mean value grey line equals median value black circles indicate mild outliers. c, Summary statistics of paleosol δ 13 CVPDB values and ƒwc from LOM3 (3.3 Ma) and Gona 33,54,55 (2.5–2.7 Ma) lithic sites and other East African hominin localities from 3.2–3.4 Ma 54,55,56,57,58,59,60,61 . LOM3 δ 13 CVPDB values are significantly lower than those from the Busidima Formation at Gona (t-test, P < 0.001) and have a mean value that indicate 18% more woody canopy cover. When compared to paleosol δ 13 CVPDB values of the Koobi Fora, Nachukui, Chemeron, and Hadar formations from 3.2 to 3.4 Ma, LOM3 δ 13 CVPDB values are not significantly different (one-way ANOVA, P > 0.05).
Extended Data Figure 5 Gradual uncovering of core I16-3 from in situ pliocene sediment.
a, Photograph showing square I16 at the beginning of excavation. Yellow line indicates north wall of square (July 16, 2011, 12.14 p.m.). b, Close-up of square I16 indicating complete burial of as-yet-uncovered artefact I16-3 (12.14 p.m.). c, Square I16 after excavation had begun and artefact I16-3 was initially exposed (2:11 p.m.). d, Close-up of artefact I16-3 after being initially exposed (2.12 p.m.). e, Close-up of artefact I16-3 after further excavation (3.02 p.m.). f, Square I16 after further excavation (5.32 p.m.). g, Close-up of artefact I16-3 after further excavation (5.34 p.m.). h, Close-up of artefact I16-3 after being completely freed from the surrounding matrix and flipped over for inspection (5.36 p.m.). i, Close-up of impression from under artefact I16-3 (5.47 p.m.).
Extended Data Figure 6 Photos of selected LOM3 artefacts compared with similar experimental cores.
Together with the technological analysis of the archaeological material, our replication experiments suggest that the LOM3 knappers were using passive hammer technique, in which the core, usually held in both hands, is struck against a stationary object that serves as the percussor 34 (also referred to as on-anvil, block on block or sur percuteur dormant 35 ) and/or bipolar technique, in which the core is placed on an anvil and struck with a hammerstone 34 . a, Unifacial passive hammer cores. Left is archaeological piece LOM3-2012 surf 106 (2.04 kg) right is experimental piece Expe 55 (3.40 kg) produced using the passive hammer technique. Selection of relatively flat blocks with natural obtuse angles. The flake removal process starts from a slighly prominent part of the block (white arrows show the direction of removals). The removals tend to be invasive. The flaked surface forms a semi-abrupt angle with the platform surface. A slight rotation of the block ensures its semi-peripheral exploitation. b, Unifacial bipolar cores. Left are archaeological pieces LOM3-2012-H18-1 (left, 3.45 kg) and LOM3-2012 surf 64 (right, 2.58 kg) right are experimental pieces Expe 39 (left, 4.20 kg) and Expe 24 (right, 2.23 kg) produced using the bipolar technique. The block selected are thicker and more quadrangular in shape with natural angles ≈90°. Flakes are removed from a single secant platform (white arrows show the direction of removals). The flaked surface forms an abrupt angle with the other faces of the block. Impacts due to the contrecoups (white dots) are visible on the opposite edge from the platform.
Extended Data Figure 7 Photographs of selected LOM3 artefacts.
a, Passive element/anvil (LOM3-2012 surf 50,15 kg). Heavy sub-rectangular block displaying flat faces and therefore a natural morphology and weight which would enable stability. b, Hammerstone showing isolated impact points (LOM3-2012 surf 33, 3.09 kg) and c, Hammerstone showing isolated impact points (LOM3-2012 surf 54, 1.63 kg), associated with a flake-like fracture on one end.