Archaeology team makes world-first tool discovery

August 8, 2016
Blade, positive for rhino residue. Credit: April Nowell.

How smart were human-like species of the Stone Age? New research published in the Journal of Archaeological Science by a team led by paleoanthropologist April Nowell of the University of Victoria reveals surprisingly sophisticated adaptations by early humans living 250,000 years ago in a former oasis near Azraq, Jordan.

The research team from UVic and partner universities in the US and Jordan has found the oldest evidence of protein residue—the residual remains of butchered animals including horse, rhinoceros, wild cattle and duck—on stone tools. The discovery draws startling conclusions about how these subsisted in a very demanding habitat, thousands of years before Homo sapiens first evolved in Africa.

The team excavated 10,000 stone tools over three years from what is now a desert in the northwest of Jordan, but was once a wetland that became increasingly arid habitat 250,000 years ago. The team closely examined 7,000 of these tools, including scrapers, flakes, projectile points and hand axes (commonly known as the "Swiss army knife" of the Paleolithic period), with 44 subsequently selected as candidates for testing. Of this sample, 17 tools tested positive for protein residue, i.e. blood and other animal products.

"Researchers have known for decades about carnivorous behaviours by -making hominins dating back 2.5 million years, but now, for the first time, we have direct evidence of exploitation by our Stone Age ancestors of specific animals for subsistence," says Nowell. "The hominins in this region were clearly adaptable and capable of taking advantage of a wide range of available prey, from rhinoceros to ducks, in an extremely challenging environment."

"What this tells us about their lives and complex strategies for survival, such as the highly variable techniques for prey exploitation, as well as predator avoidance and protection of carcasses for food, significantly diverges from what we might expect from this extinct species," continues Nowell. "It opens up our ability to ask questions about how Middle Pleistocene hominins lived in this region and it might be a key to understanding the nature of interbreeding and population dispersals across Eurasia with modern humans and archaic populations such as Neanderthals."

Another result of this study is the potential to revolutionize what researchers know about early hominin diets. "Other researchers with tools as old or older than these tools from sites in a variety of different environmental settings may also have success when applying the same technique to their tools, especially in the absence of animal remains at those sites," adds Nowell.

Explore further: How the Homo floresiensis kept their tools as they shrank into island life

More information: Journal of Archaeological Science, www.uvic.ca/assets2012/docs/do … .jas.2016.07.013.pdf

Related Stories

Sudden extinction of Neanderthals followed population peak

July 26, 2016

Neanderthals once populated the entire European continent. Around 45,000 years ago, Homo neanderthalensis was the predominant human species in Europe. Archaeological findings show that there were also several settlements ...

Stone-age tools found, but who wielded them?

January 13, 2016

Scientists have discovered stone-age tools at least 118,000-years-old on an Indonesian island but no trace of the early humans that made them, according to a study released Wednesday.

Prehistoric stone tools bear 500,000-year-old animal residue

March 19, 2015

Some 2.5 million years ago, early humans survived on a paltry diet of plants. As the human brain expanded, however, it required more substantial nourishment - namely fat and meat - to sustain it. This drove prehistoric man, ...

Recommended for you

How to cut your lawn for grasshoppers

November 22, 2017

Picture a grasshopper landing randomly on a lawn of fixed area. If it then jumps a certain distance in a random direction, what shape should the lawn be to maximise the chance that the grasshopper stays on the lawn after ...

Plague likely a Stone Age arrival to central Europe

November 22, 2017

A team of researchers led by scientists at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History has sequenced the first six European genomes of the plague-causing bacterium Yersinia pestis dating from the Late Neolithic ...

Ancient barley took high road to China

November 21, 2017

First domesticated 10,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East, wheat and barley took vastly different routes to China, with barley switching from a winter to both a winter and summer crop during a thousand-year ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.