Oldest stone tools pre-date earliest humans

May 26, 2015

By Rebecca Morelle

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.


Read the full article by clicking the name of the source located below.

28 comments on “Oldest stone tools pre-date earliest humans

  • This David Attenborough video shows a capuchin nut-cracking workshop – and youngsters on the long learning curve!

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p004p9n8
    Brown-tufted capuchins are highly intelligent creatures. They spend their nights in the safety of caves, emerging each morning to find food. Down in the valley is a particular favourite, a nut palm. The palms produce huge seeds, but have very stong shells that protect them against attack. For the capuchins, this is a war of attrition. They check which nut is ripest and tear the husk off. Then, rather than trying to crack the nut straight away, they drop it on the ground, because these Brazilian monkeys have learned that the nuts can be cracked only if they’re left to dry out in the sun. After a week or so, the capuchins return to their stash and tap the nuts to see if they’re ready.



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  • Quite interesting. Stone tools are only what’s left. what about even more primitive tools made out of wood. No more than twigs, probably. And why would they need stone tools in the first place, if it wasn’t out of necessity, foraging on the ground. Stones don’t grow on trees. 🙂



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  • 5
    aroundtown says:

    They were unearthed from the shores of Lake Turkana in Kenya, and date to 3.3 million years ago.

    Uh-oh, one more thing Ken Ham and the YEC crowd have to ignore. Turkana boy comes to mind too. Makes me wonder if the previous groups in the area gave this young lad and their families a boost in stone tool technology, an inheritance from those who came before? On a connected story I was intrigued by a modern flint-knapper who repeated the technology used by Neanderthals and their stone tools, it turned out the process was quite involved for a group that many precieve as dumb and lumbering.

    Joao Zilhao, a paleolithic archaeologist at the University of Bristol, also a flintknapper, spent years reconstructing the process of making Neanderthal tools, what were once believed to be scraps of flint with sharp edges. He proved, among other things, that obtaining these “scraps” involved a complex process of very specific flintknapping strokes. This skill was far from the previously perceived unintelligent caveman, and furthermore, it likely required language instruction.

    http://dna-explained.com/2013/01/10/decoding-and-rethinking-neanderthals/

    http://www.greatarchaeology.com/turkana_boy.htm



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  • It would be very interesting to see the difference between the finding/creation and use of these Australopithecine tools and ape and monkey tools analysed. The questions to ask are about matters of dexterity and motor control and issues of planning, the separation of tool source and tool use.



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  • phil rimmer
    May 27, 2015 at 7:40 am

    It would be very interesting to see the difference between the finding/creation and use of these Australopithecine tools and ape and monkey tools analysed.

    I think the problem would be recognising the “tools” as tools.
    The Capuchins learn as youngsters by copying and trial and error to choose suitable rocks, and see parents working on available anvil rocks, but I doubt that human observers would recognise these as tools in the absence of the monkeys.

    Flints etc. which are blades, are easier to recognise, but are likely a later stage of tool use.

    I would certainly recommend those who want an insight into early tool use by hominids, to watch the video.



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  • A human can remember what another person said last April 17, 2013, then become aware of another observation today, followed by planning to act by formulating ideas to try some different future action three months from next Wednesday. This is purposeful behavior. I have not seen purposeful behavior clearly demonstrated in any other animal, and that includes chimpanzees, dogs, horses, dolphins, and elephants. Yes, they can learn, but can they plan future actions based on previous behavior or observations and complete relevant actions on some future date?

    Purposeful behavior in humans did have an evolutionary origin sometime in the past. Do we have the evidence about this origin?

    “They (tools) 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.”

    Is the evidence of earlier primate tool use unequivocal evidence of early purposeful behavior?



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  • cbrown
    May 27, 2015 at 11:35 am

    I have not seen purposeful behavior clearly demonstrated in any other animal, and that includes chimpanzees, dogs, horses, dolphins, and elephants. Yes, they can learn, but can they plan future actions based on previous behavior or observations and complete relevant actions on some future date?

    I am not sure what you mean by “purposeful behaviour”, which distinguishes it from, “they can learn, but can they plan future actions based on previous behavior or observations and complete relevant actions on some future date?”

    Purposeful behavior in humans did have an evolutionary origin sometime in the past. Do we have the evidence about this origin?

    I would see the Capuchins in the video, leaving nuts to dry in the sun for a week, before cracking them with a carefully selected tool-stone, brought to the site for the purpose, as “purposeful behaviour”!



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  • NearlyNakedApe
    May 27, 2015 at 2:44 pm

    Fascinating! Thanks Alan

    The BBC videos cannot be viewed here in Canada so I found a YouTube version here:

    It is an extract from the same BBC Life programme, but it has a little more introduction on the front end, and the last part with the youngsters trying to copy – picking the wrong sort of rocks which break or are too small, and making a mess of it – is missed off!



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  • I see very “purposeful behavior” and “future planning” in the monkey’s leaving the nut to dry for a week in the sun, to make it easier to crack. It was also purposeful to find and, more importantly, keep, the smashing rock on hand for regular use. Some monkey had to bring that rock to that stone ‘anvil’ and then decide to leave it there. Moreover, since the practice is widespread, clearly it is passed by imitation and possibly even instruction, from one generation to the next. For all we know, the monkeys’ squeaks and grunts might even be their way of saying, “Watch and learn.”

    The gap between human and animal intelligence seems to grow smaller with every discovers.



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  • Human origins is the most exciting aspect of paleo-anthropology and I soak up as much of it as I can. The problem though that I have which just will not go away is whether it is truly evidence-based? It looks like it with a collection of apparent artifacts, but even here we are asked to take it on “faith” that they are indeed artifacts and not randomly occurring natural derivatives of erosion and general chaos.

    But the issue that really troubles me is that it reminds me of the early days of archaeology where the discipline was abused in the quest to prove the Bible narrative (or in fairness: the Homeric one). It seems that we are assuming that the moment of “humanity” occurred in a specific species directly ancestral to us and all the evidence found is ascribed to that pre-existing thesis. The research must continue, must increase, but please let us not jump to such belief confirming conclusions on the basis of such slight evidence



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  • Some three million years ago one of our ancestors may have recognized a face in this stone, the Makapansgat pebble, and carried it with them back to their shelter. I think that’s amazing. It definitely looks like it could have been manufactured.

    But analysis has revealed that it is the result of weathering. I assume that the same methods of analysis allow researches to determine that these artifacts are unlikely to be the result of natural processes.

    Perhaps someone else knows the details of the methods used.



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  • or the squeaks might be saying “, here is that Attenborough chap with his cameras again, has he nothing better to do, he should be doing something useful and monkeyful like cracking nuts”



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  • If the cat, on numerous occasions, jumps on the arm of my chair stares fixedly at me, emits a specific meow from, his admittedly limited, range of meows , and I then get up and feed him, which of us is exhibiting purposeful behaviour and which is exhibiting reflex or learnt behaviour?



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  • Meanwhile: –

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-32906836
    A new species of ancient human has been unearthed in the Afar region of Ethiopia, scientists report.
    Researchers discovered jaw bones and teeth, which date to between 3.3m and 3.5m years old.

    It means this new hominin was alive at the same time as several other early human species, suggesting our family tree is more complicated than was thought.

    The study is published in the journal Nature.

    The new species has been called Australopithecus deyiremeda, which means “close relative” in the language spoken by the Afar people.

    The ancient remains are thought to belong to four individuals, who would have had both ape and human-like features.

    Lead researcher Dr Yohannes Haile-Selassie, curator of physical anthropology at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History in the US, told BBC News: “We had to look at the detailed anatomy and morphology of the teeth and the upper and lower jaws, and we found major differences.

    “This new species has very robust jaws. In addition, we see this new species had smaller teeth. The canine is really small – smaller than all known hominins we have documented in the past.”

    The age of the remains means that this was potentially one of four different species of early humans that were all alive at the same time.

    The most famous of these is Australopithecus afarensis – known as Lucy – who lived between 2.9-3.8m years ago, and was initially thought to be our direct ancestor.

    However the discovery of another species called Kenyanthropus platyops in Kenya in 2001, and of Australopithecus bahrelghazali in Chad, and now Australopithecus deyiremedaI, suggests that there were several species co-existing.



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  • Time Team Phil

    Had to look that up. But sure, never hurts to have (and read) an outside opinion.

    There is a heritage site near St. Louis Mo, Cahokia; I’ve always pined to go there. The Lewis & Clark expedition officially started nearby (Missouri River). Cahokia pre-dates them, and were gone, by some 800 years. A thriving metropolis, snuffed like a candle!



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  • There is a big difference between using objects as tools and making tools. There is a huge difference between putting a nut on one rock and smashing it open with another rock, and chipping flakes from a selected stone to fashion an edge or other utilitarian shape. Apparently some Australopithecus accomplished the latter. The process may not impress an aerospace engineer working on the space shuttle, but the achievement is light years ahead of what other animals of the era were up to. Perhaps incipient humanoid cognitive structures had already developed in our Austrolopithecine ancestors 3.3 million years ago, despite chimp-size brains.( By the way, I am fascinated by the illustration of an Australopithecus shown in the article. Forget Einstein or Churchill. This is the guy from history I’d like to invite to dinner.)



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  • Melvin
    May 30, 2015 at 12:18 pm

    There is a big difference between using objects as tools and making tools.

    You are right, but even selecting the right material is a skill. As wit evolution, we need to look at the progress through the stages of development.

    chipping flakes from a selected stone to fashion an edge or other utilitarian shape. Apparently some Australopithecus accomplished the latter. The process may not impress an aerospace engineer working on the space shuttle,

    I would not under-rate this skill!
    Having tried this, I suspect it would take modern engineers quite some time to get the knack of chipping off a usable flint blade, or arrow-head! ( Although any broken flint has sharp edges.)



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