science

Archaeology: Early humans used flint chopping tools to break animal bones 2.6 million years ago


Flint chopping tools were used by early humans beginning 2.6 million years ago to break animal bones and release the high-calorie marrow inside, a study has found.

Researchers led from Germany and Isreal analysed the function of 53 similar chopping tools found at the 400,000-year old site of Revadim, east of Ashdod.

Each chopping tool featured one massive, flaked and sharp edge which would have been brought to bear on bones by holding the flint in one’s grip.

The team examined the wear traces and organic residues found on the tools to determine how their owners would have used them.

They found that many of the artefacts had significant edge damage derived from chopping hard materials — while others were coated in residues from animal bones. 

Next, they then made and tested out replicas of the tools on various animal bones — including those of pigs, sheep and deer — to see how well they worked.

Finally, they were able to compared the wear and tear from their replica tools with the originals to confirm their hypothesis about how they were used.

Flint chopping tools (pictured) were used by our early human ancestors 2.6 million years ago to break animal bones and release the tasty marrow inside, a study has found

Flint chopping tools (pictured) were used by our early human ancestors 2.6 million years ago to break animal bones and release the tasty marrow inside, a study has found 

The researchers made and tested out replicas of the tools on various animal bones — including those of pigs, sheep and deer — to see how well they worked

The researchers made and tested out replicas of the tools on various animal bones — including those of pigs, sheep and deer — to see how well they worked

‘For years we have been studying stone tools from prehistoric sites in Israel, in order to understand their functions,’ said paper author and archaeologist Ran Barkai of Israel’s Tel Aviv University.

‘One important source of tools is Revadim, an open-air site — as opposed to a cave — dating back to 500,000–300,000 years before our time, and rich with remarkably well-preserved findings.’

‘Over the years we have discovered that Revadim was a highly favoured site, re-inhabited over and over again by humans, most probably of the late Homo Erectus species,’ he continued.

‘Bones of many types of game, including elephants, cattle, deer, gazelles and others, were found at the site.’

‘The chopping tool was invented in Africa about 2.6 million years ago, and then migrated with humans wherever they went over the next two million years,’ explained Professor Barkai.

‘Large quantities of these tools have been found at almost every prehistoric site throughout the Old World — in Africa, Europe, the Middle East and even China — evidence for their great importance.’

‘However, until now, they had never been subjected to methodical lab testing to find out what they were actually used for.’ 

'For years we have been studying stone tools from prehistoric sites in Israel, in order to understand their functions,' said paper author and archaeologist Ran Barkai of Israel's Tel Aviv University, pictured here holding flints. 'One important source of tools is Revadim, an open-air site — as opposed to a cave — dating back to 500,000–300,000 years before our time'

‘For years we have been studying stone tools from prehistoric sites in Israel, in order to understand their functions,’ said paper author and archaeologist Ran Barkai of Israel’s Tel Aviv University, pictured here holding flints. ‘One important source of tools is Revadim, an open-air site — as opposed to a cave — dating back to 500,000–300,000 years before our time’

Researchers led from Germany and Isreal analysed the function of 53 similar chopping tools found at the 400,000-year old site of Revadim (pictured), east of Ashdod

 Researchers led from Germany and Isreal analysed the function of 53 similar chopping tools found at the 400,000-year old site of Revadim (pictured), east of Ashdod

‘Early humans broke animal bones in two to extract bone marrow. This requires great skill and precision, because shattering the bone would damage the bone marrow,’ explained Professor Barkai.

‘The chopping tool — which we examined in this study — was evidently outstandingly popular, because it was easy to make, and highly effective for this purpose,’ he continued.

‘This is apparently the reason for its enormous distribution over such a long period.’

‘The present study has expanded our knowledge of the toolkit of early humans — one more step toward understanding their way of life, tracking their migrations, and unravelling the secrets of human evolution.’

The full findings of the study were published in the journal PLOS ONE

WHEN DID HUMANS START USING TOOLS?

It is hard for scientists to say precisely when humans started making tools because the more primitive remains look like a natural object rather than a human artefact.

The oldest-known instruments are the Oldowan stone tools from Ethiopia, which date back about 2.6 million years.

The Acheulean tool technology period – up to 1.76 million years ago – featured large stone hand axes made from flint and quartzite.

Towards the end of this period, the tools became more refined and then followed the so-called Levallois technique, which saw the creation of scrapers, slicers, needled and flattened needles.

About 50,000 years ago more refined and specialised flint tools were made and used by Neanderthals and it is believed it was at this stage tools were constructed out of bone.

As human culture advanced, artefacts such as fish hooks, buttons and bone needles were used.

Cut marks have found on animal bones that have been dated to be 3.4 million years old – around the time that a squat ape-like ancestor called Australopithecus afarensis – known as Lucy – roamed Africa. 



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