Advances in human behaviour came surprisingly early in Stone Age

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By Jeff Tollefson

Early humans in eastern Africa crafted advanced tools and displayed other complex behaviours tens of thousands of years earlier than previously thought, according to a trio of papers published on 15 March in Science1,2,3. Those advances coincided with — and may have been driven by — major climate and landscape changes.

The latest evidence comes from the Olorgesailie Basin in Southern Kenya, where researchers have previously found traces of ancient relatives of modern human as far back as 1.2 million years ago. Evidence collected at sites in the basin suggests that early humans underwent a series of profound changes at some point before roughly 320,000 years ago. They abandoned simple hand axes in favour of smaller and more advanced blades made from obsidian and other materials obtained from distant sources. That shift suggests the early people living there had developed a trade network — evidence of growing sophistication in behaviour. The researchers also found gouges on black and red rocks and minerals, which indicate that early Olorgesailie residents used those materials to create pigments and possibly communicate ideas.

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