Israel conference: Cavemen discovered recycling

Oct 11, 2013 by Ariel David
This Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2013 photo shows the stone age recycling site cave at the north of Israel next to the city of Zichron Yaakov. There is mounting evidence that already hundreds of thousands of years ago our prehistoric ancestors learned to recycle the objects they used in their daily lives, say researchers gathered here for an international conference. (AP Photo/Dan Balilty)

If you thought recycling was just a modern phenomenon championed by environmentalists and concerned urbanites—think again.

There is mounting evidence that hundreds of thousands of years ago, our prehistoric ancestors learned to recycle the objects they used in their daily lives, say researchers gathered at an international conference in Israel.

"For the first time we are revealing the extent of this phenomenon, both in terms of the amount of recycling that went on and the different methods used," said Ran Barkai, an archaeologist and one of the organizers of the four-day gathering at Tel Aviv University that ended Thursday.

Just as today we recycle materials such as paper and plastic to manufacture new items, early hominids would collect discarded or broken tools made of flint and bone to create new utensils, Barkai said.

The behavior "appeared at different times, in different places, with different methods according to the context and the availability of raw materials," he told The Associated Press.

From caves in Spain and North Africa to sites in Italy and Israel, have been finding such recycled tools in recent years. The conference, titled "The Origins of Recycling," gathered nearly 50 scholars from about 10 countries to compare notes and figure out what the phenomenon meant for our ancestors.

Recycling was widespread not only among early humans but among our evolutionary predecessors such as Homo erectus, Neanderthals and other species of hominids that have not yet even been named, Barkai said.

Avi Gopher, a Tel Aviv University archaeologist, said the early appearance of recycling highlights its role as a basic survival strategy. While they may not have been driven by concerns over pollution and the environment, hominids shared some of our motivations, he said.

"Why do we recycle plastic? To conserve energy and ," Gopher said. "In the same way, if you recycled flint you didn't have to go all the way to the quarry to get more, so you conserved your energy and saved on the material."

This Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2013 photo shows the stone age recycling site cave at the north of Israel next to the city of Zichron Yaakov. There is mounting evidence that already hundreds of thousands of years ago our prehistoric ancestors learned to recycle the objects they used in their daily lives, say researchers gathered here for an international conference. (AP Photo/Dan Balilty)

Some cases may date as far back as 1.3 million years ago, according to finds in Fuente Nueva, on the shores of a prehistoric lake in southern Spain, said Deborah Barsky, an archaeologist with the University of Tarragona. Here there was only basic reworking of flint and it was hard to tell whether this was really recycling, she said.

"I think it was just something you picked up unconsciously and used to make something else," Barsky said. "Only after years and years does this become systematic."

That started happening about half a million years ago or later, scholars said.

For example, a dry pond in Castel di Guido, near Rome, has yielded bone tools used some 300,000 years ago by Neanderthals who hunted or scavenged elephant carcasses there, said Giovanni Boschian, a geologist from the University of Pisa.

"We find several levels of reuse and recycling," he said. "The bones were shattered to extract the marrow, then the fragments were shaped into tools, abandoned, and finally reworked to be used again."

At other sites, stone hand-axes and discarded flint flakes would often function as core material to create smaller tools like blades and scrapers. Sometimes hominids found a use even for the tiny flakes that flew off the stone during the knapping process.

At Qesem cave, a site near Tel Aviv dating back to between 200,000 and 420,000 years ago, Gopher and Barkai uncovered flint chips that had been reshaped into small blades to cut meat—a primitive form of cutlery.

Some 10 percent of the tools found at the site were recycled in some way, Gopher said. "It was not an occasional behavior; it was part of the way they did things, part of their way of life," he said.

He said scientists have various ways to determine if a was recycled. They can find direct evidence of retouching and reuse, or they can look at the object's patina—a progressive discoloration that occurs once stone is exposed to the elements. Differences in the patina indicate that a fresh layer of material was exposed hundreds or thousands of years after the tool's first incarnation.

Some participants argued that scholars should be cautious to draw parallels between this ancient behavior and the current forms of systematic recycling, driven by mass production and environmental concerns.

"It is very useful to think about prehistoric recycling," said Daniel Amick, a professor of anthropology at Chicago's Loyola University. "But I think that when they recycled they did so on an 'ad hoc' basis, when the need arose."

Participants in the conference plan to submit papers to be published next year in a special volume of Quaternary International, a peer-reviewed journal focusing on the study of the last 2.6 million years of Earth's history.

Norm Catto, the journal's editor in chief and a geography professor at Memorial University in St John's, Canada, said that while prehistoric recycling had come up in past studies, this was the first time experts met to discuss the issue in such depth.

Catto, who was not at the , said in an email that studying prehistoric could give clues on trading links and how much time people spent at one site.

Above all, he wrote, the phenomenon reflects how despite living millennia apart and in completely different environments, humans appear to display "similar responses to the challenges and opportunities presented by life over thousands of years."

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User comments : 11

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Jimbaloid
5 / 5 (5) Oct 11, 2013
People have always reused, repaired, and re-purposed and so I would have been surprised if useful things were simply discarded even this early in our history, especially if significant energy was involved in the manufacture of a new item to do the same job. Have so many people really lost these skills in the last couple of decades that this comes as a surprise? By contrast, what we think of now as recycling is more a form of 'specialized disposal' concerned with recovering raw material.
Eikka
1.8 / 5 (10) Oct 11, 2013
early hominids would collect discarded or broken tools made of flint and bone to create new utensils


That's not "recycling".

Taking a broken flint knife and making it into an arrowhead is more modernly called "downcycling", where resources are used until they no longer yield anything useful. Such as paper to cardboard, to packaging noodles, to road filling. It's more efficienct use of the material, but it still ultimately ends up as waste and is not cycled back to the starting point.

It's important to make the distinction, because calling downcycling recycling is ignoring the fact that you still need virgin materials to do all that. If you downcycle e.g. aluminium cans instead of recycling them, you're ultimately dumping aluminium into landfills.

megmaltese
1.6 / 5 (7) Oct 11, 2013
People have always reused, repaired, and re-purposed and so I would have been surprised if useful things were simply discarded even this early in our history, especially if significant energy was involved in the manufacture of a new item to do the same job. Have so many people really lost these skills in the last couple of decades that this comes as a surprise? By contrast, what we think of now as recycling is more a form of 'specialized disposal' concerned with recovering raw material.


Totally agree, this article looks so naive, just to not use another term.

Just take trip and visit some old peasants: they are "recycling" too everything they use.
They transform an instrument in something else.
Anything broken is repaired and reused.
Each resource is used and reused until is not a resource at all and even then if it's wood its final destination is fire for the house.

So imagine if prehistorical men didn't use each resource as much as possible...

This article makes no sense.
Telekinetic
1.7 / 5 (11) Oct 11, 2013
"Just take trip and visit some old peasants:"-megmaltese

Now that's recycling an antiquated derogatory term.
StillWind
1 / 5 (14) Oct 11, 2013
Isn't it amazing that people who are supposed to be "educated" can be so completely ignorant of any kind of reality?
I realize the elitist that wrote this paper and the equally clueless writer who posted it, must be dumbfounded that people didn't need a fascist government to force them to reuse their resources, but here in the real world, no one is surprised.
Thanks for reminding us that academics are nothing but out of touch, overpaid parasites living in ivory towers.
You couldn't have done a better job making the case.
Eikka
1 / 5 (11) Oct 11, 2013
This article makes no sense.


It makes perfect sense if you think of the purpose of the article as a propaganda piece for an idea.

Often recycling has no point, but it's done because someone is making money over it. It's easy, because when people believe that all recycling makes sense, they will refuse to believe that they're doing harm when it doesn't.

For example, it's often more efficient to burn paper locally for energy than to ship it half way across a country to be recycled and then brought back as new product, because paper cannot be recycled perfectly. Today's newspaper is not tomorrow's newspaper, but more like tomorrow's bog roll. It's fine that you can save on materials like that, but it still costs money and fuel to collect, sort and transport it.

However if you get the people to recycle out of their own pocket, you can make more money out of recycling than burning the waste paper along with other trash.

NikFromNYC
1.2 / 5 (13) Oct 11, 2013
Linguistics wordplay thrust into peer review is crappy science that impoverishes and sickens people by diverting R&D funds away from the hard physical sciences.
tadchem
1.6 / 5 (12) Oct 11, 2013
Strictly speaking, 'recycling' includes the use of bone and antler (waste from meals) to produce tools, and utilization of furs from animals killed for food. Nothing new or interesting here. Please move along.
kevin_buckeye_3
1.4 / 5 (11) Oct 11, 2013
This article makes no sense.


It makes perfect sense if you think of the purpose of the article as a propaganda piece for an idea.

Often recycling has no point, but it's done because someone is making money over it. It's easy, because when people believe that all recycling makes sense, they will refuse to believe that they're doing harm when it doesn't.

For example, it's often more efficient to burn paper locally for energy than to ship it half way across a country to be recycled and then brought back as new product, because paper cannot be recycled perfectly. Today's newspaper is not tomorrow's newspaper, but more like tomorrow's bog roll. It's fine that you can save on materials like that, but it still costs money and fuel to collect, sort and transport it.

However if you get the people to recycle out of their own pocket, you can make more money out of recycling than burning the waste paper along with other trash."

Are you really that ignorant and uneducated?
VendicarE
5 / 5 (4) Oct 13, 2013
"thrust into peer", "crappy", "hard physical". - NikkieTard

What is your subconscious secretly trying to tell us TardieBoy.

Did you have too much love for your mother/little sister as a child?
alanborky
1 / 5 (4) Oct 13, 2013
The trouble with many researchers's they're middle class frequenters of restaurants with au pairs to look after their kids and they unconsciously assume not only is this the norm but it's alway been this way.

Many times I've been asked by professional acquaintances/friends completely oblivious of how rude they're being "Why do people like you live like that?" as if it's some kind of lifestyle choice.

I'm not having a go merely suggesting it'd give many researchers a better perspective on their respective fields to spend more time among ordinary people who even with the advent of mass produced cheap foreign goods still remain reluctant to even think of disposing of old clothes or broken implements a way of life that's been the norm from virtually the dawn of time right upto the present.