Stony Brook Archaeologists Find the Earliest Evidence of Stone Tool Making in Cradle of Humankind
Earliest Stone Artifacts Push Back Archaeological Record by 700,000 Years—More Than One Quarter of Humanity’s Previously Known Material Cultural History
Stony Brook Team Finds Earliest Stone Tools
Stony Brook, N.Y., May 20, 2015 – Our ancestors were making stone tools even earlier than we thought—some 700,000 years older. That’s the finding of the West Turkana Archaeological Project (WTAP) team—co-led by Stony Brook University’s Drs. Sonia Harmand and Jason Lewis—who have found the earliest stone artifacts, dating to 3.3 million years ago, at a site named Lomekwi 3 on the western shore of Lake Turkana in northern Kenya.
|Harmand and Lewis examine stone tool findings at the excavation site in Kenya.
“These tools shed light on an unexpected and previously unknown period of hominin behavior, and can tell us a lot about cognitive development in our ancestors that we can’t understand from fossils alone,”says Dr. Harmand, a Research Associate Professor in the Turkana Basin Institute (TBI) at Stony Brook University. “Our finding disproves the long-standing assumption that Homo habilis was the first tool maker.”
The discovery was announced in a paper, 3.3-million-year-old stone tools from Lomekwi 3, West Turkana, Kenya, published on May 21 in Nature. Dr. Harmand, the lead author, says that the Lomekwi 3 artifacts show that at least one group of ancient hominin started intentionally “knapping” stones—breaking off pieces with quick, hard strikes from another stone—to make sharp tools long before previously thought.
In the 1930s, paleoanthropologists Louis and Mary Leakey unearthed early stone artifacts at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania and named them the Oldowan tool culture. In the 1960s they found hominin fossils (in association with those Oldowan tools) that looked more like later humans—and assigned them to a new species, Homo habilis, handy man.
|The WTAP team together at the excavation site in Kenya.
“Conventional wisdom in human evolutionary studies since has supposed that the origins of knapping stone tools was linked to the emergence of the genus Homo, and this technological development was tied to climate change and the spread of savannah grasslands,” says Dr. Lewis, a Research Assistant Professor at TBI. “The premise was that our lineage alone took the cognitive leap of hitting stones together to strike off sharp flakes, and that this was the foundation of our evolutionary success.”
But a series of papers published in early 2015 have solidified an emerging paradigm shift in paleoanthropology—Australopithecus africanus and other Pleistocene hominins, traditionally considered not to have made stone tools, have a human-like trabecular bone pattern in their hand bones consistent with stone tool knapping and use.
Credit getting lost for the find. One day in the field, Drs. Harmand and Lewis and their team accidently followed the wrong dry riverbed—the only way of navigating these remote desert badlands—and were scanning the landscape for a way back to the main channel. Local Turkana tribesman Sammy Lokorodi helped them spot the stone tools.
“The tools are much larger than later Oldowan tools, and we can see from the scars left on them when they were being made that the techniques used were more rudimentary, requiring holding the stone in two hands or resting the stone on an anvil when hitting it with a hammerstone,” Dr. Harmand says. “Some of the gestures involved are reminiscent of those used by chimpanzees when they use stones to break open nuts.”
The study of the Lomekwi 3 artifacts suggest they could represent a transitional technological stage—a missing link—between the pounding-oriented stone tool use of a more ancestral hominin and the flaking-oriented knapping of later, Oldowan toolmakers.
“The site at Lomekwi provides an ideal window into early hominin behavior across an ancient landscape. The exposures of sedimentary strata there allow us to place these activities in a detailed environmental context, and to tightly constrain their age” notes geologist Craig Feibel of Rutgers University, a co-author on the study.
The scientists dated the hominin remains by correlating the rock strata where they were discovered with well-known radiometrically dated tuffs (volcanic ash). The tools were studied by Dr. Harmand and her colleague Hélène Roche—world experts in lithic analysis, the study of stone artifacts from the various Stone Age periods in which they were made—to interpret physical features and reconstruct the manufacturing techniques used at the prehistoric site, including experimental replication of the tools.
Drs. Harmand and Lewis co-directed the fieldwork and analysis of the findings as part of an international, multidisciplinary team of archaeologists, paleontologists, geologists, paleoanthropologists; there are 19 other co-authors on the paper.
The Turkana Basin Institute is a privately funded, non-profit initiative founded by Richard Leakey and Stony Brook University, with a primary research focus on human prehistory and related earth and natural science studies. TBI provides permanent scientific facilities and logistical support to conduct fieldwork and research in the challenging remote environment of sub-Saharan Africa. It’s committed to safeguarding the extensive fossil deposits in the region through engagement with local communities, and works with the National Museums of Kenya in scientific institutional partnerships.
Dr. Lewis wanted to be a paleoanthropologist working in East Africa since he was 13, when he read a book about the famous Lucy skeleton of Australopithecus afarensis. Dr. Harmand has always been impassioned about the quest for our origins, and the role of tools in cognitive evolution. She wanted to work in the Cradle of Humankind, where the first chapters of the human story are preserved.
“I have no doubt that these aren’t the very first tools that hominins made,” says Dr. Harmand, who in addition to her position at Stony Brook is a researcher at France’s Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique. “They show that the knappers already had an understanding of how stones can be intentionally broken, beyond what the first hominin who accidentally hit two stones together and produced a sharp flake would have had. I think there are older, even more primitive artifacts out there.”
What the experts are saying:
“The paper by Harmand et al describes a truly pathbreaking discovery, and moves the date of the earliest flaked stone artifacts back by almost 3/4 of a million years. In addition, the careful documentation of the Lomekwi flaking techniques in this and forthcoming papers shows them as more primitive than those seen within the time range of Homo. This reaffirms the argument that the repeated and competent manufacture of useful sharp edges, on which we came to depend, may have been a driving factor in the evolution of our genus, both anatomically and cognitively.
“It also confirms an assertion we made in a 2002 paper [“Older than the Oldowan,” Panger et al. Evolutionary Anthropology] that the oldest Oldowan artifacts at 2.5+0.15 Ma were too sophisticated to represent the dawn of human technology. Harmand’s paper raises questions about who the earliest stone tool makers were—was Kenyanthropus platyops found nearby in the same time range actually the precursor to Homo as its discoverers suggested? Stay tuned.”
Alison Brooks, Professor of Anthropology, Center for the Advanced Study of Human Paleobiology, George Washington University; Research Associate, Human Origins Program, Smithsonian Institution
“This is a landmark discovery pertaining to one of the key milestones in our evolution, tool making. Our team’s discovery of cut-marked bones [the marks were
inflicted while carving meat off the bone of a mammal]
in Dikika, Ethiopia—dating back to 3.39 Ma [mega-annum, or million years]—indicated that Homo habilis, ‘the handy man,’ was not the first in our lineage to use tools.
“Dr. Harmand’s team’s crucial find takes this further, and shows that other, earlier species not only used but also made tools. With the cut marks from Dikika we had the victim—Harmand’s discovery give us the smoking gun. Now there is a solid reason to think about early hominin behavior differently, and establish that stone tool use and making occurred prior to 2.6 Ma. This calls for the revision of our theoretical framework and fieldwork methods related to the study of earliest human behavior.”
Dr. Zeray Alemseged, Senior Curator, California Academy of Sciences
“The Lomekwi stone tools join cut-mark evidence from Dikika in pushing the origins of stone cutting tools back to almost 3.5 million years ago. This raises new questions about the differences between stone tools made by earlier hominins and those by recent humans. The really interesting scientific question is, ‘What pushed early hominins to make stone tools at that place and at that point in time? What were they doing with the tools?’”
John Shea, Professor, Department of Anthropology, Stony Brook University; Research Associate, Turkana Basin Institute
“The capabilities of our ancestors
—and the environmental forces—leading to early stone technology are a great scientific mystery. The modified stones from Lomekwi begin to lift the veil on that mystery, at an earlier time than expected. Researchers have thought there must be some way of flaking stone that preceded the simplest tools known until now. Harmand’s team shows us just what this even simpler altering of rocks looked like before technology became a fundamental part of early human behavior.”
Rick Potts, Director, Human Origins Program, Smithsonian Institution; Curator of Anthropology, National Museum of Natural History
“Many have expected the threshold of stone tool making to be pushed back in time but the Lomekwi excavations really do represent a major advance in our understanding. This is a seminal discovery and publication.”
Richard Leakey, Professor and Chair, Turkana Basin Institute
Turkana Basin Institute
Stony Brook University
CNRS, UMR 7055, Préhistoire et Technologie, Université Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense, France
Department of Anthropology and Center for Human Evolutionary Studies, Rutgers University
Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, Rutgers University
Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University
CNRS, UPR 2147, Dynamique de l’Evolution Humaine, France
CNRS, UMR 5199, PACEA, Université Bordeaux 1, France
Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Social Work, Seton Hall University
IPHEP, Institut de Paléoprimatologie, Paléontologie Humaine : Évolution et Paléoenvironnements, CNRS, UMR 7262, Université de Poitiers
Aix-Marseille Université, CNRS, MCC, UMR 7269, LAMPEA, France.
National Museums of Kenya, Department of Earth Sciences, Archaeology Section, Kenya.
Partners and support
National Museums of Kenya
French Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Turkana Basin Institute
French National Research Agency (ANR-12-CULT-0006),
National Geographic Society (Expeditions Council #EC0569-12)
The Rutgers University Research Council and Center for Human Evolutionary Studies,
Total Kenya Limited
intm indigo France
Zoller & Fröhlich GmbH company
Autodesk and Faro