At the annual meeting of the Palaeoanthropology Society in the US this week, researchers announced the discovery of a set of stone tools in Kenya that they think are the oldest ever found. And not just by a little bit - they've been dated to 3.3 million years ago, which makes them 700,000 years older than any other tools ever found.
The implications for this are pretty huge, because they predate the arrival of our genus Homo - thought to be 2.8 million years old - which suggests that ancient, long-gone australopithecines such as 'Lucy' could have been making and using tools long before our genus even existed.
In 2003, an international team of palaeontologists uncovered what was, until recently, the oldest stone tools ever found. Extracted from the site of Gona, in the Afar triangle of Ethiopia's Great Rift Valley, they were dated to 2.6 million years ago, and attributed to the earliest stone tool technology in the archaeological record, known as the Oldowan.
Between 2.6 and 1.7 million years ago, this technology spread widely throughout eastern Africa and down to southern Africa, and by 1.8 million years ago, early Homo populations had taken it with them to Europe, as evidenced by fossil remains and Oldowan tools found in Dmanisi, Georgia in 2002.
Now, thanks to archaeologist Sonia Harmand from Stony Brook University in New York and her colleagues, we've got tools that are way, way older than the Ethiopian cache.
Michael Balter describes the find, which was uncovered just west of Lake Turkana in Kenya, at Science Mag:
"More tools were discovered under the ground, including so-called cores from which human ancestors struck off sharp flakes; the team was even able to fit one of the flakes back to its original core, showing that a hominin had crafted and then discarded both core and flake in this spot.
The researchers … have now uncovered nearly 20 well-preserved flakes, cores, and anvils apparently used to hold the cores as the flakes were struck off, all sealed in sediments that provided a secure context for dating. An additional 130 pieces have also been found on the surface, according to the talk."
The find ties into a controversial study that came out in 2010 following the discovery of a 3.4-million-year-old australopithecine child in the Ethiopian site of Dikika, together with animal bones showing a series of cut marks along them. These linear marks appeared to be deliberate, and not just accidental scratches, the team behind the discovery argued, which suggests that these ancient human ancestors were, in fact, tool-users. And now the discovery of stone tools from around the same time period adds weight to this theory.
"With the cut marks from Dikika we had the victim," palaeoanthropologist Zeresenay Alemseged from the California Academy of Science, who was not involved in the discovery, told Balter. "Harmand's discovery gives us the smoking gun."
Harmand told the meeting that as the tools were around long before the Homo genus came into existence, they were likely made by members of either the Kenyanthropus or Australopithecus (Lucy) genera. The team has proposed a new term for the technology used to make these tools - "Lomekwian technology" - as the way they've been made is so distinct from the Oldowan tools that have been found so far.
Source: Science Mag