Humans shaped stone axes 1.8 million years ago, study says

August 31, 2011, Columbia University
Early humans were using stone hand axes as far back as 1.8 million years ago. Credit: Pierre-Jean Texier, National Center of Scientific Research, France

A new study suggests that Homo erectus, a precursor to modern humans, was using advanced toolmaking methods in East Africa 1.8 million years ago, at least 300,000 years earlier than previously thought. The study, published this week in Nature, raises new questions about where these tall and slender early humans originated and how they developed sophisticated tool-making technology.

Homo erectus appeared about 2 million years ago, and ranged across Asia and Africa before hitting a possible evolutionary dead-end, about 70,000 years ago. Some researchers think Homo erectus evolved in East Africa, where many of the oldest fossils have been found, but the discovery in the 1990s of equally old Homo erectus fossils in the country of Georgia has led others to suggest an Asian origin. The study in Nature does not resolve the debate but adds new complexity. At 1.8 million years ago, Homo erectus in Dmanisi, Georgia was still using simple chopping tools while in West Turkana, Kenya, according to the study, the population had developed , picks and other innovative tools that anthropologists call "Acheulian."

"The Acheulian tools represent a great technological leap," said study co-author Dennis Kent, a geologist with joint appointments at Rutgers University and Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. "Why didn't Homo erectus take these tools with them to Asia?"

In the summer of 2007, a team of French and American researchers traveled to Kenya's Lake Turkana in Africa's , where earth's plates are tearing apart and some of the earliest humans first appear. Anthropologist Richard Leakey's famous find--Turkana Boy, a Homo erectus teenager who lived about 1.5 million years ago—was excavated on Lake Turkana's western shore and is still the most complete early human skeleton found so far.

Six miles from Turkana Boy, the researchers headed for Kokiselei, an archeological site where both Acheulian and simpler "Oldowan" tools had been found earlier. Their goal: to establish the age of the tools by dating the surrounding sediments. Past flooding in the area had left behind layers of silt and clay that hardened into mudstone, preserving the direction of Earth's magnetic field at the time in the stone's magnetite grains. The researchers chiseled away chunks of the mudstone at Kokiselei to later analyze the periodic polarity reversals and come up with ages. At Lamont-Doherty's Paleomagnetics Lab, they compared the magnetic intervals with other stratigraphic records to date the archeological site to 1.76 million years.

Study co-author, Craig Feibel, is among the team of researchers that returned in 2007 to West Turkana to put dates on hand axes excavated earlier. Credit: Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory

"We suspected that Kokiselei was a rather old site, but I was taken aback when I realized that the geological data indicated it was the oldest Acheulian site in the world," said the study's lead author, Christopher Lepre, a geologist who also has joint appointments at Rutgers and Lamont-Doherty. The oldest Acheulian tools previously identified appear in Konso, Ethiopia, about 1.4 million years ago, and India, between 1.5 million and 1 million years ago.

The Acheulian tools at Kokiselei were found just above a sediment layer associated with a polarity interval called the "Olduvai Subchron." It is named after Tanzania's Olduvai Gorge, where pioneering work in the 1930s by Leakey's parents, Louis and Mary, uncovered a goldmine of early human fossils. In a study in Earth and Planetary Science Letters last year, Lepre and Kent found that a well-preserved Homo erectus skull found on east side of Lake Turkana, at Koobi Fora Ridge, also sat above the Olduvai Subchron interval, making the skull and Acheulian tools in West Turkana about the same age.

Anthropologists have yet to find an Acheulian hand axe gripped in a Homo erectus fist but most credit Homo erectus with developing the technology. Acheulian tools were larger and heavier than the pebble-choppers used previously and also had chiseled edges that would have helped Homo erectus butcher elephants and other scavenged game left behind by larger predators or even have allowed the to hunt such prey themselves. "You could whack away at a joint and dislodge the shoulder from the arm, leg or hip," said Eric Delson, a paleoanthropologist at CUNY's Lehman College who was not involved in the study. "The tools allowed you to cut open and dismember an animal to eat it."

The skill involved in manufacturing such a tool suggests that Homo erectus was dexterous and able to think ahead. At Kokiselei, the presence of both tool-making methods—Oldowan and Acheulian-- could mean that Homo erectus and its more primitive cousin Homo habilis lived at the same time, with Homo erectus carrying the Acheulian technology to the Mediterranean region about a million years ago, the study authors hypothesize. Delson wonders if Homo erectus may have migrated to Dmanisi, Georgia, but "lost" the Acheulian technology on the way.

The East African landscape that Homo erectus walked from about 2 million to 1.5 million years ago was becoming progressively drier, with savanna grasslands spreading in response to changes in the monsoon rains. "We need to understand also the ancient environment because this gives us an insight into how processes of evolution work—how shifts in early human biology and behavior are potentially caused by changes in the climate, vegetation or animal life that is particular to a habitat," said Lepre. The team is currently excavating a more than 2 million year old site in Kenya to learn more about the early Oldowan period.

Explore further: Homo erectus was first master of the kitchen: study

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3 / 5 (6) Aug 31, 2011
Ancient Relics Dissemination thanks to your Friendly Neighborhood Pastaform-Appendaged Deity.
3.9 / 5 (7) Aug 31, 2011
Please insert massively ignorant religious rant here-->
2.3 / 5 (3) Aug 31, 2011
GOD will strike thee down in vengeance for your blatant blasphemy.

Seriously though, who the bloody hell would know there is or is not a god(s) be it bible like or just a real advanced race of beings/entities. We only know what we know.
5 / 5 (5) Aug 31, 2011
GOD will strike thee down in vengeance for your blatant blasphemy.

Seriously though, who the bloody hell would know there is or is not a god(s) be it bible like or just a real advanced race of beings/entities. We only know what we know.

Nobody of any high degree of intelligence that I've ever met claims that there is definitely no God. Most atheists that have taken their stance based on logic and reason simply don't believe in a God since no good evidence has been presented. I don't believe in elves. I don't know that elves don't exist, but I haven't seen proof that they do. You don't believe in everything by default and stop believing when non existence is proven. Quite the opposite, you believe in hardly anything when born and accept the existence of objects when they are proven to exist. There is a difference between believing and knowing. Most atheists believe there is no God. I believe there is no God. Of course, a sufficiently advanced alien may fit the bill.
4.7 / 5 (3) Sep 01, 2011
"However you imagine me to be, that is how I will appear to you"
The Bagadavida.
Atheists imagine a null god, that is how he appears to them.

I wish that Homo erectus et al still walked so that the gradation between ourselves and the natural world was smoother. Then we wouldent go in for this insane exceptionalism.
5 / 5 (1) Sep 01, 2011
Anyway, cool looking face on the left image of the stone :-)
4 / 5 (1) Sep 01, 2011
Most atheists that have taken their stance based on logic and reason simply don't believe in a God since no good evidence has been presented.

Well, I don't believe in quagglepoofs, either. And I have not evidence that they exist or not (since I just madethe term up neither does anyone else)
That does NOT mean that because of the absence of evidence they are a possibility.

There's a difference beteween denying the existence of something and simply dismissing the issue as a non-issue. Bein an atheist is like the latter stance. The existence of gods isn't denied - it simply noted that it's not an issue worth bothering with.
5 / 5 (4) Sep 01, 2011
"cool looking face "
That's it. we have had it wrong all the time. They are not hand axes. They are passports.
5 / 5 (4) Sep 01, 2011
Spears/axes have always been passports:
"Let me pass or I'll stick this into you"
5 / 5 (1) Sep 01, 2011
Argumentum ad ignorantiam. Readers/commentators remind other readers/commentators of this constantly. An angel's patience, regardless of the existence of angels or not.


"However you imagine me to be, that is how I will appear to you" - The Bagadavida/Egleton.

If I imagine you, then I shortchange you and imagination.

What habitat or inheritance made them omnivores?

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