Convincing, indirect evidence for early toolmakers

A surprising number of animals pick up items from their surroundings and use them, mainly to get at otherwise inaccessible foodstuffs. What sets humans apart from such tool users is that we make them and for a long time part of our repertoire has been tools used to make other tools; so-called ‘machine tools’. An example is a piece of antler used to pressure-flake flint to give a stone blade a better edge, a more recent one is the increasing use of robots on assembly lines. Making a tool is impossible for a bird with only its beak and ill-adapted feet, while even a chimpanzee lacks various forms of grip needed for precisely directed force and manipulation. It was Frederick Engels who first focussed on the importance of the hand being freed to evolve the capacity for manual labour by the permanent adoption of an upright posture and gait, in his essay The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man written in 1876.

The earliest tools known turned up in 2.6 Ma old sediments at Gona in NE Ethiopia, while evidence for tool use is well accepted from cracked and sliced bones found in sediments dated at 2.5 Ma from Bouri in the same region. In neither case can the finds be tied to fossil remains of the makers and users, the earliest direct link emerging from famous Olduvai Gorge in western Tanzania, where crude Oldowan tools and worked bones occur with incomplete remains of a hominin, dubbed Homo habilis (‘handy man’) because of this association. Somewhat more controversial are bones that show cuts and scrape marks plus signs of having been cracked open that were found in a 3.4 Ma context at Dikika, also in Ethiopia, within the same sedimentary horizon as the young Australopithecus afarensis known as Selam (‘Hello’). The Dikika material is little different from 0.9 to 1.2 Ma younger bones at Bouri and Olduvai: the controversy seems to stem more from its much greater age and association with hominins deemed by some to have been incapable of creating tools.

English: Main division on the (right) human hand.
Bone structure of the (right) human hand. (credit: Wikipedia)

An entirely novel approach to the issue of the first tools and their makers, which with little doubt would have tickled Engels no end, is a careful anatomical and physiological examination of fossil hominin hand bones in comparison with those of chimps and living humans (Skinner, M.M. et al. Human-like hand use in Australopithecus africanus. Science, v. 347, p. 395-399). The bones being scrutinized are the five metacarpals that form the links in the palms from muscles of the forearm to finger and thumb movements and thus to various kinds of grip. In humans there are a host of ways of gripping objects from the precision of opposed thumb and finger pinching, especially that using the forefinger, to the squeezing power grip that wraps thumb and all fingers around an object and makes a fist. The best a chimp can do is grabbing a branch, to which its knuckle-walking hands are well adapted. The tips of the metacarpals are mechanically loaded according to the types of grip used repeatedly in life and that works to modify the physical density of the tips’ spongy bone tissue in patterns that vary according to habitual usage of the hand and its digits. This new approach is reputedly far more diagnostic than the actual shape of metacarpal bones, and requires high-resolution CT scanning.

Known early human and Neanderthal tool-makers show very similar patterns: in fact they suggest far more heavy loading through various kinds of grip than the metacarpals of humans from the modern period. In 1.8 to 3.0 Ma old A. africanus and Paranthropus robustus (a gorilla-like but bipedal australopithecine) from South Africa metacarpals suggest that both were habitually using a tree-climbing grip, much as chimpanzees do, but more closely resembled modern human and Neanderthal committed tool users. Both were certainly capable of using forceful precision grips to make and use tools up to 0.5 Ma earlier than the date of the earliest known tools. So far the technique has not been applied to the palm bones of earlier hominins such as A. afarensis (2.9-3.9 Ma) and Orrorin tugenensis (~6 Ma). Despite the suggestion of tool-making capability­, agreeing that it did take place in non-Homo hominins must await finds of tools, as well as signs of their use, in close association with fossil remains of their makers. The Dikika association is simply not enough. Yet, some bipedal being must have made tools before the date of the earliest ones (~2.6 Ma) discovered at Gona. Look at it this way: it is a lucky archaeologist who discovers every piece of evidence for a fundamental social change at one site. The fact that, by definition, the vast bulk of Pliocene and Pleistocene sediments that may contain the key evidence is either buried by younger material or was a victim of erosion, means that the chance of resolving the origin of the fundamental feature of human behaviour is tiny. The chance that scientists will continue looking is astronomically higher.

Hominin round-up

The skull of Australopithecus africanus so-cal...
Australopithecus africanus from Sterkfontein cave, South Africa. Image via Wikipedia

Strontium isotopes and australopithecine habits

Viewers of Channel 4’s Time Team will be used to seeing eating habits and places of habitation being derived from strontium isotopic analyses of the teeth of modern humans found by archaeologists. The methods enabled scientists to work out where ‘Ötzi the Iceman’, whose mummified remains were found on the alpine border of Austria and Italy, hailed from: it was most likely to have been the South Tyrol province of Italy. Other isotopes (nitrogen and carbon) shows that he was predominantly vegetarian; i.e. he was neither a hunter, nor an especially privileged member of Tyrolean Chalcolithic society.

The same methods offer insights into the life styles of far earlier hominins and has recently been used on teeth of australopithecines (Australopithecus africanus and Paranthropus robustus) found in the famous Sterkfontein and Swartkrans caves South Africa (Copeland, S.R. et al. 2011. Strontium isotope evidence for landscape use by early hominins. Nature, v. 474, p. 76-78). The caves formed in Precambrian dolomites and it was expected that all the teeth would show signs that the individuals from whose jaws they were collected lived their entire lives in a small tract of dolomites (~30 km2) surrounding the caves. For large individuals that was indeed the case, but teeth from smaller fossils show 87Sr/86Sr ratios that are significantly different from those characteristic of local rocks and soils. That suggests the smaller individuals came from further afield than the restricted tract of carbonate strata. Although pelvic remains are normally the best guide to the sex of primate fossils, they are less frequently found than those of crania and dentition. Size variations of adults in a primate species, however, may indicate sexual dimorphism – larger males than females – and this is well-accepted for australopithecines. The implication is that for both species males had small home ranges on the dolomites, or that they preferred that tract. Yet females had dispersed from their parental groups and moved into the area.

Most living primates do not show this kind of sexual dispersion pattern, termed male philopatry,  it being common among modern humans, chimpanzees and bonobos. In the case of the australopithecines that were being studied, both were diminutive creatures living in open savannah with risks of predation from a range of large carnivores. Perhaps the bands living in the dolomite area had better refuges in caves than those elsewhere, and therefore able to attract females.

Arctic Neanderthals

Mousterian Point
A Mousterian stone point, possibly for a spear. Image via Wikipedia

The last Neanderthals known to have been alive were close to the southernmost limit of Europe, in caves on the Rock of Gibraltar at about 24 ka, shortly before the last glacial maximum. Their remains have been found in a >6000 km west-east zone at temperate latitudes, south of 50°N, which extended from western Europe to the Denisova cave in the Altai republic of Russia (50°N, 87°E). This suggests that they subsisted in deciduous woodland and temperate steppe, diffusing southwards as conditions cooled during 2 or 3 past glacial periods. Consequently, sites at higher northern latitudes that preserve only cultural remains – Palaeolithic tools – have hitherto been regarded as signs of fully modern human occupation; it takes considerable skill to distinguish Neanderthal from early modern human artefacts, which are very similar during the time of overlapping occupation (~40-30 ka). A site in northern Siberia at Byzovaya  in the Polar Urals, close to the Arctic circle, is a case in point. A French, Norwegian and Russian team of archaeologists re-examined the site (Slimak, L. et al. 2011. Late Mousterian persistence near the Arctic Circle. Science, v. 332, p. 841-845) and dated it to between 31-34 ka. They also analysed a suite of stone tools, finding that they are directly comparable with Mousterian (Middle Palaeolithic) implements from western Europe rather than products of modern human’s industry of similar antiquity. At that time high-latitude climate was well on its way to frigid, dry conditions (there were no substantial continental ice sheets in northern Russia). The animal remains found at the site were dominated by those of mammoth, with minor proportions of other cold-steppe large mammals, such as woolly rhino, musk ox, horse and bear.

A notable feature of the results is that they suggest that Neanderthals, or others people with a Mousterian culture, were occupying this bleak terrain at roughly the same time as modern humans, who left considerably richer suites of artefacts, including tools, ornaments and figurines carved from bone and ivory, but were after more or less the same prey species. Both groups clearly were able to cope with and thrive on the harsh conditions, until recently only within the scope of highly specialised cultures such as the Innuit and original Siberian peoples. The dating shows that whoever produced and used the Mousterian tools not only shared the terrane with modern humans, but lingered until well after the previously accepted time (~37 ka) of the Neanderthals’ demise except for a few refuges in the Iberian Peninsula and Balkans. Despite the occupation of northern Siberia by different cultural groups, until their bones are found who they were is not certain. Denisova Cave showed that Neanderthals and the genetically different Denisovans co-occupied temperate central Siberia (see Other rich hominin pickings in the May 2010 issue of EPN) so there are currently two options.