Who invented stone tools? A great surprise from Kenya

Up to now the earliest stone tools are objects dated to about 3.3 Ma (Late Pliocene) found in the Turkana basin of Kenya in 2015. They are sharp-edged pieces of rock that seem to have been made simply by striking two lumps of rock together (see: Stone tools go even further back; May 2015). These Lomekwian artefacts are similar to the basic tools made today by some chimpanzees in parts of Africa. Their age matches that for the earliest known animal bones that show signs of having meat cut from them, which were unearthed in Dikika, Ethiopia (see: Another big surprise; September 2010) which, like the Lomekwian tools, are not accompanied by tools or hominin remains. The earliest tools associated with members of the genus Homo are significantly more sophisticated. They were found in close association with H. habilis at what seems to have been a well-used butchering site, dated at 2.0 Ma, in Tanzania’s Olduvai Gorge, hence their designation as the Oldowan ‘industry’. The Oldowan ‘tool kit’ includes choppers and blades deliberately shaped to be wielded by hand and made by striking large cobbles with distinctive hammer stones. Earlier tools with this level of deliberate crafting come from the 2.6 Ma Ledi-Geraru site in the Afar Depression of NE Ethiopia but with no sign of their makers.

Oldowan tools used for pounding and cutting from Nyayanga, Kenya (Credit: Thomas Plummer, James Oliver and Emma Finestone/Homa Peninsula Paleoanthropology Project/SWNS)

The presence of Oldowan tools has now been pushed further back, by about 400 ka, thanks to excavations in Late Pliocene sediments at Nyayanga on the shore of Lake Victoria in western Kenya by Thomas Plummer of Queens College in New York State, USA, and his numerous collaborators from the US, Germany, the UK, China, Italy, Australia, Kenya, South Africa and Poland (Plummer, T.W. and 31 others 2023. Expanded geographic distribution and dietary strategies of the earliest Oldowan hominins and Paranthropus. Science, v. 379, p. 561-566; DOI: 10.1126/science.abo7452). Their work also expands the range of Oldowan culture by about 1300 km. The Nyayanga site yielded over 300 artefacts that closely resemble the previously known range of Oldowan tool shapes. Their makers struck flakes from suitable corestones – made of rhyolite, quartz and quartzite – and trimmed them by more intricate means. They seem to have been used to cut up mainly hippo and buffalo, bones of which bear clear cut marks, but had other uses. Analysis of the wear on tool surfaces not only show signs of butchery, but also processing of plant tissue by pounding; the latter resulted in pitting and polishing of tools that seem to have been used many times. Stable-isotope analysis of the bones and animal teeth suggests that in the Pliocene Nyayanga was a grassy and partly wooded savannah close to a substantial water body needed by hippos.

Reconstruction of a Paranthropus head (Credit: Jerry Humphrey, Pinterest)

The ‘great surprise’ is that the only hominin remains associated with the site are two damaged molar teeth. They are so large that their most likely source was a species of Paranthropus.Paranthropoids have long been considered to be a gorilla-like, ‘robust’ branch of australopithecines. Their large cranial crests anchoring jaw muscles and enormous teeth were reckoned to indicate a diet of tough vegetation – the discoverer of the first specimen of P. boisei dubbed it ‘Nutcracker Man’ – although the wear on individual teeth suggests otherwise. But there is no reason to suppose that they could not eat meat. They survived australopithecines by more than a million years to cohabit the East African savannahs with H. ergaster until about 1 Ma ago.

Lead author Thomas Plummer wonders if paranthropoids would have needed tools because they had the largest jaws and teeth of any hominin. But had his team found close association with smaller H.habilis teeth would he have held a similarly negative view? There is evidence from younger sites in South Africa that paranthropoids used a wide diversity of bone tools and may even have been among the earliest fire users. So why the negativity about stone tools? To paraphrase Ali G, ‘Is it because they is ugly?’

See also: Devlin, H, Discovery of 3m-year-old stone tools sparks prehistoric whodunit. The Guardian, 9 February 2023

Multiple invention of stone tools

Steadily, the record of stone tools has progressed further back in time as archaeological surveys have expanded, especially in East Africa (Stone tools go even further back, May 2015). The earliest known tools – now termed Lomekwian – are 3.3 million years old, from deposits in north-western Kenya, as are cut-marked bone fragments from Ethiopia’s Afar region. There is no direct link to their makers, but at least six species of Australopithecus occupied Africa during the Middle Pliocene. Similarly, there are various options for who made Oldowan tools in the period between 2.6 and 2.0 Ma, the only known direct association being with Homo habilis in 2.0 Ma old sediments from Tanzania’s Olduvai Gorge; the type locality for the Oldowan.

The shapes of stone tools and the manufacturing techniques required to make them and other artefacts, are among the best, if not the only, means of assessing the cognitive abilities of their makers. A new, detailed study of the shapes of 327 Oldowan tools from a 2.6 Ma old site in Afar, Ethiopia has revealed a major shift in hominin working methods (Braun, D.R. and 17 others 2019. Earliest known Oldowan artifacts at >2.58 Ma from Ledi-Geraru, Ethiopia, highlight early technological diversity. Proceedings of the National Academy, v. 116, p. 11712-11717; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1820177116). The sharp-edged tools were made by more complex methods than the Lomekwian. Analysis suggests that they were probably made by striking two lumps of rock together, i.e. by a deliberate two-handed technique. On the other hand, Lomekwian tools derived simply by repeatedly bashing one rock against a hard surface, not much different from the way some living primates make rudimentary tools. But the morphology of the Ledi-Geraru tools also falls into several distinct types, each suggesting systematic removal of only 2 or 3 flakes to make a sharp edge. The variations in technique suggest that several different groups with different traditions used the once lake-side site.

Various 2.6 Ma old Oldowan stone tools from Ledi-Geraru, Ethiopia (credit: Braun et al., 2019)

Ledi-Geraru lies about 5 km from another site dated about 200 ka earlier than the tools, which yielded a hominin jawbone, likely to be from the earliest known member of the genus Homo. A key feature that suggested a human affinity is the nature of the teeth that differ markedly from those of contemporary and earlier australopithecines. It appears that the tools are of early human manufacture. The ecosystem suggested by bones of other animals, such as antelope and giraffe was probably open grassland – a more difficult environment for hominin subsistence. The time of the Lomekwian tools was one of significantly denser vegetation, with more opportunities for gathering plant foods. Perhaps this environmental shift was instrumental in driving hominins to increased scavenging of meat, the selection pressure acting on culture to demand tools sharp enough to remove meat from the prey of other animals quickly, and on physiology and cognitive power to achieve that.

See also: Solly, M. 2019. Humans may have been crafting stone tools for 2.6 million years (Smithsonian Magazine)

The earliest humans to leave Africa, in China

Since discovery in 2010 that remains of the genus Homo at Dmanisi in Georgia were about 1.85 Ma old several more instances of bones and stone tools a few hundred thousand years less than that age have turned up in China. All have been ascribed to H. erectus, although there are dissimilarities with African examples of the species and its predecessor H. ergaster. The technological breakthrough that led H. erectus/ergaster to knap the distinctive bifacial or Acheulean ‘handaxe’ was achieved at about the same time as the Dmanisi humans left Africa, yet there is no sign of such tools in eastern Asia until much later, most ancient artefacts there being of a more primitive, ‘Oldowan’ type. That is perhaps because more serviceable tools were fashioned from less durable materials than fine-grained rock that takes an edge. Maybe the skills were lost en route or the forebears of eastern Asian tool makers left Africa before the breakthrough. At any rate, the genus Homo is generally conferred on any being that had a tool-making culture, so that the presence of tools alone in a sedimentary deposit signifies that humans probably once inhabited that site. The earliest tools (3.3 Ma) from the Turkana area of Kenya were made half a million years before the first known appearance of well-documented remains of an un-named member of the genus Homo at  Ledi-Geraru in Afar, Ethiopia (2.8 Ma). At sites in Olduvai, Tanzania (1.9 Ma) and Turkana, Kenya (2.1 Ma) fossils of Homo habilis are found in association with ‘Oldovan’ stone tools.

Sites where early human fossils an tools have been found. (Credit: John Kappelman, Nature 2018; doi:10.1038/d41586-018-05293-9)

The latest development in the origin and wanderings of early humans has emerged from studies of a thick deposit of windblown silt or loess that makes up the Loess Plateau (Latitude 34°N) between the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers in central-east China. The loess is divided into several sequences by thin soil horizons (palaeosols). The entire stratigraphy contains tiny grains of iron minerals whose magnetic polarity was aligned with the Earth’s magnetic field at the time of deposition. This allows periods of normal and reversed geomagnetic polarity to be detected with considerable precision. Measurements have been taken at 10 cm intervals throughout the loess, to give an unbroken record of events throughout the Pleistocene Epoch that can be matched to a dated reference called the geomagnetic polarity timescale (GPTS). Palaeoclimate researchers have been able to show that the layers of loess correspond to successive glacial stages, whereas the palaeosol represent warm interglacials, exactly as recorded in sea-floor sediment profiles   A team of archaeologists from China and Britain have found primitive, Oldowan-type, artefacts in both the loess and palaeosol horizons at 17 different levels (Zhu, Z. and 10 others 2018. Hominin occupation of the Chinese Loess Plateau since about 2.1 million years ago. Nature, v. 559 advance publication online doi:10.1038/s41586-018-0299-4. See also). The artefacts are positioned at levels dated at between 1.26 to 2.12 Ma by the palaeomagnetic dating (from the Réunion to Cobb Mountain normally polarized subchrons).

Primitive stone tool (four sides shown) from the Loess Plateau of China. (Credit: Zhu et al./Nature 2018)

So, in both cool and warm conditions (34°N has cold winters today) toolmakers were regularly present in central, east China for almost 900 ka. The earliest must have made a 14 thousand km trek from tropical Africa across several climatic zones, and been physically, cognitively and technologically capable of surviving and reproducing for the one- to three-thousand years the journey must have taken (based on a dispersal rate of 5 to 15 km a year estimated from modern hunter-gatherers’ activities). Either there were repeated migrations of this scale or a pioneer population survived on or within reach of the loess steppe for hundreds of thousand years. The earliest emigrants would have been neither Homo erectus nor ergaster, for neither had evolved. Their age suggests that they may have been H. habilis, a view that has been expressed for the ancestors of the diminutive H. floresiensis known to have been present of the Indonesian island of Flores for around 700 ka. Until actual fossils are unearthed – not easy as the sequence is exposed in very steep slopes characteristic of dissected loess terrains – who the first occupants of China were remains mysterious. But one thing stands out: If early humans from that long ago could arrive, survive and prosper half a world away from their place of origin, then paleoanthropologists must consider the possibility of continual diffusion of the genus Homo away from its African origins once equipped with the ability to make tools. China may become the focus for early-human research as it became for that into the origins of birds and feathered dinosaurs.

You can read more about early humans and their evolution here.

A fully revised edition of Steve Drury’s book Stepping Stones: The Making of Our Home World can now be downloaded as a free eBook