Oldest flaked stone tools point to the repeated invention of stone tools

Oldest flaked stone tools point to the repeated invention of stone tools

stone tools
A large green artifact found in situ at the Bokol Dora site. Right: Image of the same artifact and a three dimensional model of the same artifact. Credit: David R. Braun

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.

Archaeologists from the Max Planck Institute, and the Ethiopian Authority for Research and the Conservation of Cultural Heritage as well as geologists from University of Algarve study the sediments at the Bokol Dora site. Stones were placed on the contact surface during the excavation to preserve the fragile stratigraphic contacts. Credit: Erin DiMaggio

"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.

Blade Engda of the University of Poitiers lifts an artifact from 2.6 million year old sediment exposing an imprint of the artifact on the ancient surface below. Credit: David R. Braun

"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.

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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.

 

Press release from the Arizona State University


brain fossils neuroanatomy

Brain, shape and fossils

Brain, shape and fossils

Emiliano Bruner has just published a paper on the shape of the brain over human evolution, which reviews the evolutionary relationship between humans and the other primates, as well as the most recent methods for comparing the principal variations between brain and cranium

brain fossils neuroanatomy
Credit: Emiliano Bruner

Emiliano Bruner, a paleoneurologist at the Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre la Evolución Humana (CENIEH), has just published an overview article in the Journal of Comparative Neurology, on studies of changes in brain shape over the course of human evolution, which considers the evolutionary relationship between humans and the other primates.

Evolutionary neuroanatomy must integrate two different sources of information: fossils and living species. The fossils furnish data on the process of evolution, while living species do the same for the product of evolution. Unfortunately, the fossil record is incomplete and fragmented, and often cannot support validations for specific evolutionary hypotheses. Extant species can offer more comprehensive indications, but they do not represent ancestral groups or primitive forms.

Specifically, this paper reviews the limitations on studies of evolutionary neuroanatomy and the different contributions made by analyses of living primates and extinct hominins. For instance, the great apes are still interpreted as primitive biological models, even though these are species that have evolved independently of the path traced by the human genus. “Macaques or chimpanzees are frequently used as proxy for human ancestral conditions, despite the fact they are divergent and specialized lineages, with their own biological features”, says Bruner.

With regard to the fossils, these can furnish more direct information about the evolutionary process, but the limitations of the samples often do not allow scientific testing of our hypotheses, leading to a lot of guesswork. In fact, as Bruner explains, “independent lineages, such as the Neanderthals, ought not to be confused with ancestral modern human stages”.

Endocranial molds
The paper also introduces the most recent methods for computed morphometrics and biomedical image analysis, describing the principal variations in brains and endocranial molds (endocasts) for modern humans and extinct hominins, in addition to the spatial relationship between brain and cranium in the human genus.

Finally, it proposes integrating anatomical and cultural information with what is known in neurobiology when formulating hypotheses about cognitive evolution. One example would be the evolution of the parietal cortex and its schemes of cerebral connections.

This paper, entitled Human paleoneurology: shaping cortical evolution in fossil hominids, has been published in a volume dedicated to the evolution of the cerebral cortex, edited by Verónica Martínez-Cerdeño and Stephen Noctor, of the University of California at Davis (USA).

 

Full bibliographic information

 

"Human paleoneurology: shaping cortical evolution in fossil hominids", edited by Verónica Martínez-Cerdeño and Stephen Noctor Journal of Comparative Neurology (0). doi: 10.1002/cne.24591

Press release from the Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre la Evolución Humana (CENIEH) / ES


From Stone Age chips to microchips: How tiny tools may have made us human

From Stone Age chips to microchips: How tiny tools may have made us human

The technology of miniaturization set hominins apart from other primates

The iconic, tear-drop shaped hand axe, which filled a human palm, required a large toolkit to produce (left), in contrast to a toolkit for tiny flakes. Credit: Emory University

Anthropologists have long made the case that tool-making is one of the key behaviors that separated our human ancestors from other primates. A new paper, however, argues that it was not tool-making that set hominins apart -- it was the miniaturization of tools.

Just as tiny transistors transformed telecommunications a few decades ago, and scientists are now challenged to make them even smaller, our Stone Age ancestors felt the urge to make tiny tools. "It's a need that we've been perennially faced with and driven by," says Justin Pargeter, an anthropologist at Emory University and lead author of the paper. "Miniaturization is the thing that we do."

Stone Age miniaturization stone tools prehistory
Going small may have helped some humans survive the last period of rapid climate change, 17,000 years ago, says Emory anthropologist Justin Pargeter. Credit: Emory University

The journal Evolutionary Anthropology is publishing the paper -- the first comprehensive overview of prehistoric tool miniaturization. It proposes that miniaturization is a central tendency in hominin technologies going back at least 2.6 million years.

"When other apes used stone tools, they chose to go big and stayed in the forests where they evolved," says co-author John Shea, professor of anthropology at Stony Brook University. "Hominins chose to go small, went everywhere, and transformed otherwise hostile habitats to suit our changing needs."

The paper reviews how stone flakes less than an inch in length -- used for piercing, cutting and scraping -- pop up in the archeological record at sites on every continent, going back to some of the earliest known stone tool assemblages. These small stone flakes, Pargeter says, were like the disposable razor blades or paperclips of today -- pervasive, easy to make and easily replaced.

He identifies three inflection points for miniaturization in hominin evolution. The first spike occurred around two million years ago, driven by our ancestors' increasing dependence on stone flakes in place of nails and teeth for cutting, slicing and piercing tasks. A second spike occurred sometime after 100,000 years ago with the development of high-speed weaponry, such as the bow and arrow, which required light-weight stone inserts. A third spike in miniaturization occurred about 17,000 years ago. The last Ice Age was ending, forcing some humans to adapt to rapid climate change, rising sea levels and increased population densities. These changes increased the need to conserve resources, including the rocks and minerals needed to make tools.

A native of South Africa, Pargeter co-directs field work in that country along its rugged and remote Indian Ocean coastline and nearby inland mountains. He is also a post-doctoral fellow in Emory University's Center for Mind, Brain and Culture and the Department of Anthropology's Paleolithic Technology Laboratory. The lab members actually make stone tools to better understand how our ancestors learned these skills, and how that process shaped our evolution. The lab's director, Dietrich Stout, focuses on hand axes, dating back more than 500,000 years. These larger tools are considered a turning point in human biological and cognitive evolution, due to the complexity involved in making them.

Pargeter's work on tiny tools adds another facet to the investigation of human evolution. "He's exploring what may have led to the compulsion to produce these tiny instruments -- essentially the relationship between the tools and the human body, brain and the probable uses of the tools," Stout says.

When looking for a PhD thesis topic, Pargeter first focused on collections of larger implements, considered typical of the Stone Age tool kit. He pored over artifacts from a South African site called Boomplaas that were being held in storage at the Iziko Museum in Cape Town. As he rummaged through a bag labelled as waste -- containing small flakes thought to be left over from making larger tools -- something caught his eye. A sliver of crystal quartz looked like it had been shaped using a highly technical method called pressure flaking.

"It was diminutive, about the size of a small raisin, and weighed less than half a penny," he recalls. "You could literally blow it off your finger."

Pargeter examined the flake under a magnifying glass. He noticed it had a distinctive, stair-step fracture on its tip that previous experimental research showed to be associated with damage caused in hunting.

"It suddenly occurred to me that archeologists may have missed a major component of our stone tool record," Pargeter says. "In our desire to make 'big' discoveries we may have overlooked tiny, but important, details. A whole technology could lay hidden behind our methods, relegated to bags considered waste material."

So how to interpret the use of a tool so tiny that you could easily blow it off your finger?

Pargeter began thinking of this question in terms of the age of the flake -- about 17,000 years -- and the environment at the time. The last Ice Age was ending and massive melting of ice at the poles caused the global sea-level to rise. In parts of South Africa, the rising oceans swallowed an area the size of Ireland. As the coastal marshes and grasslands disappeared -- along with much of the game and aquatic life -- the hunter-gatherers living there fled inland to sites like Boomplaas, currently located about 80 kilometers inland. The mountains around Boomplaas provided permanent springs and other dependable freshwater sources.

The climate, however, was less predictable, with sudden shifts in temperature and rainfall. Vegetation was shifting dramatically, temperatures were rising and large mammals were increasingly scarce. Archaeology from Boomplaas shows that people ate small game like hares and tortoises. These small animals would have been easy to catch, but they provided limited nutritional packages.

"These are low-reward food sources, indicating a foraging stress signal," Pargeter says. "Boomplaas might have even served as a type of refugee camp, with groups of hunter-gatherers moving away from the coast, trying to survive in marginal environments as resources rapidly depleted and climate change ratcheted up."

Arrow points a little less than an inch across were already in the archaeological literature, but the Boomplaas crystal quartz flake was half that size. In order to bring down an animal, Pargeter hypothesized, the Boomplaas flake would need poison on its tip -- derived either from plants or insects -- and a high-speed delivery system, such as a bow and arrow.

The tiny crystal flake, from a site in South Africa called Boomplaas, that sparked Justin Pargeter to investigate Stone Age miniaturization. Credit: Justin Pargeter

Pargeter used his own extensive knowledge of prehistoric tool-making and archaeology to hypothesize that the tiny flake could have been hafted, using a plant-based resin, onto a link shaft, also likely made of a plant-based material, such as a reed. That link shaft, about the length of a finger, would in turn fit onto a light arrow shaft.

"The link shaft goes into the animal, sacrificing the small blade, but the arrow shaft pops out so you can retain this more costly component," he says. "Our ancestors were masters of aerodynamics and acted like engineers, rather than what we think of as 'cave people.' They built redundancy into their technological systems, allowing them to easily repair their tools and to reduce the impact of errors."

Our ancestors were also connoisseurs of the type of fine-grained rocks needed for tool-making.

Supplies of such vital toolmaking raw materials, however, were likely diminished as the rising oceans consumed land and people became more crowded together, driving them to more carefully conserve what they could find on the landscape.

As paleoanthropologists are faced with more than three million years of hominin "stuff," one of the perennial questions they keep seeking to answer is, what makes us humans unique? "We've typically said that tool use makes us human, but that's kind of buckled under," Pargeter says, as evidence of tool use by other animals accumulates.

Macaques, for example, use rocks to smash apart oysters. Chimpanzees use rocks as hammers and anvils to crack nuts and they modify sticks to dig and fish for termites. These tools, however, are large. "The hands of other primates are not evolved for repeated fine manipulation in high-force tasks," Pargeter says. "We've evolved a unique precision grip that ratchets up our ability for miniaturized technology."

Humans are also the masters of dispersing into novel environments, unlike other primates that remained in the landscapes of their ancestors. "Smaller tools are the choice of technology for a mobile, dispersing population," Pargeter says. "When Homo sapiens left Africa they weren't carrying bulky hand axes, but bows and arrows and smaller stone implements."

 

Press release from Emory Health Sciences