Environmental change and early-human innovation

Acheulean biface tools strewn on a bedding surface in the Olorgesailie Basin, Kenya (credit: mmercedes_78 Flickr)

The Olorgesailie Basin in Southern Kenya is possibly the world’s richest source for evidence of ancient stone-tool manufacture. For early humans, it certainly was rich in the necessary resources from which to craft tools. Lying in East Africa’s active rift system, its stratigraphy contains abundant beds of hydrothermal silica (chert), deposited by hot springs, and flows of fine grained lavas. Its sediments spanning the last 1.2 million years show that the Basin hosted lakes and extensive river systems for the earlier part of this period: it was rich in food resources too. The tools, together with bones from dismembered prey, bear witness to long-term human occupation, but hominin remains themselves have yet to be discovered. The time span suggests early occupation by Homo erectus, who probably manufactured Acheulean biface stone tools in large quantities that litter the surface at some archaeological sites.

There is a break in the stratigraphic sequence from about 500 to 320 thousand years ago caused by erosion during a period of tectonic uplift. Younger sediments reveal a striking change in archaeology. The earlier large cutting tools give way to a more diverse ‘toolkit’ of smaller tools produced by more sophisticated techniques than those used to make the Acheulean ‘hand axes’. In African archaeological parlance, the <320 ka-old tools mark the onset of the Middle Stone Age (NB not equivalent to the much younger Mesolithic of Europe). The sedimentary gap also marks what seems to have been very different human behaviour. The stone resources used in the 1.2 to 0.5 Ma sequence were local: no more than 5 km from the tool-yielding sites. After the gap a much more varied range of lithologies was used, from as far afield as 95 km. Not only that, but rock unsuitable for tools appears: soft pigments such as hematite.

The foregoing was known from three major papers that appeared in March 2018 (see: Human evolution and revolution in Africa, March 2018 – specifically the section Hominin cultural revolution 320,000 years ago). Now, many members of the teams who produced that published evidence report detailed analysis of samples from a deep drill core through the stratigraphy in a similar, nearby basin (Potts, R. and 21 others 2020. Increased ecological resource variability during a critical transition in hominin evolutionScience Advances, v. 6, article eabc8975; DOI:10.1126/sciadv.abc8975). As well as calibrating the timing of stratigraphic changes using 40Ar/39Ar dating from 22 volcanic layers, the team analysed sedimentary structures, body- and trace fossils, variations in sediment geochemistry, palaeobotany and carbon isotopes, to suggest variations in environmental conditions and ecology throughout the section in greater detail than previously achieved anywhere in Africa.

They conclude that as well as a change in topography resulting from the 500-320 ka period of tectonic uplift and erosion, the climate of this part of East Africa became more unstable. Combined, these two factors transformed the ecosystems of the Olorgesailie Basin. Between 1.2 to 0.5 Ma the Acheulean tool makers inhabited dominantly grassy plains with substantial, permanent lakes – a stable period of 700 thousand years, well suited to large herbivores and thus to these early humans. Tectonic and climatic change disrupted a ‘land of plenty’; the herbivores left to be replaced by smaller prey animals; vegetation shifted back and forth from grassland to woodland with the unstable climate; lakes became smaller and ephemeral. The problem in linking environmental change to changed human practices in this case, however, is the 180 thousand-year gap in the geological record. Lead author Richard Potts, director of the Human Origins Program at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, and his team suggest that the change contributed to the ecological flexibility of the probable Homo sapiens who left the fancier, more diverse tools during the later phase. Yet 1.6 million years beforehand early H. erectus had sufficient flexibility to cross 30 to 40 degrees of latitude and end up on the shores of the Black Sea in Georgia! The likely late-stage H. erectus of Olorgesailie may have moved out around 500 ka ago and sometime later early H. sapiens moved in with new technology developed elsewhere. We know that the earliest known anatomically modern humans lived in Morocco at around 315 ka (see: Origin of anatomically modern humans, June 2017): but we don’t know what tools they had or where they went next. There are all sorts of possibilities that cannot be addressed by even the most intricate analysis of secondary evidence. The important issue seems, I think, to centre on the transition from erects to sapiens, in anatomical, cognitive and behavioural contexts, via some intermediary such as H. antecessor, to which this study can contribute very little. That needs complete stratigraphic records: ironically, the other basin from which the core was drilled is apparently more complete, especially for the 500 to 320 ka ‘gap’. That seems likely to offer more potential. Yet, such big questions also demand a much broader brush: perhaps on a continental scale. It’s to early to tell …

See also: Turbulent era sparked leap in human behavior, adaptability 320,000 years ago (Science Daily,21 October 2020)