When and Where Did Hominin Begin to Make and Use Stone Tools? - A short Essay

The production and use of stone tools was a crucial point of our ancestral evolution, allowing early hominin to harness greater control over their environment, so understanding when they were first produced and used is an important step. In this essay I want to first look at the original evidence of stone tool use and where they come from, then look at how this evidence has changed and hopefully answer the question of when and where the first stone tools were made and used.

Finds made by Louis and Mary Leakey at Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania, led archaeologists to believe that they had discovered the first stone tools (see figure 1), chronologically dated to around 1.85mya (Toth & Schick, 2013). Today, the geographical distribution of finds related to the Oldowan now includes much of northern and southern Africa, southwest Asia and southern Europe, which encompasses several hominin species and habitat types. So identifying the initial responsible hominin is still problematic, and the strongest links seemed to connect to Paranthropus boisei and Homo habilis in the Olduvai gorge (Wynn et al, 2011).

Figure 1: Oldowan Tools From Tanzania

Later discoveries were made at Gona, Ethiopia, in the form of flakes and cobbles, that pushed the dates further back to around 2.5-6mya (McPherron et al, 2010). This time period suggests that they were produced and used by species of hominin at the time, including Australopithicus africanus and aethiopicus. However another possible candidate is Australopithicus garhi, found in Bouri, Middle Awash, alongside cut marked animal bones; and although there were no stone tools at the site, they correspond with roughly contemporary sediments at Gona (Toth & Schick, 2013). This changed the perspective of early hominin abilities, as there seemed to be an astonishing level of skill in the tools made by what were previously seen to be 'specialised apes', therefore questions were raised as to whether stone tool manufacture was in fact older still (de la Torre, 2011).

It was argued that the tools found at Gona were too advanced to be the first attempts by early hominin, and a discovery made at Dikika, an area close to Gona, seemed to support this theory. Two fossilised bones of large herbivores were found with what looked like cut marks from stone tools (see figure 2), which would mean that they were in use 800,000 years before previously thought (Dominguez-Rodrigo et al, 2010). This caused considerable excitement, due to the fact that the hominin species at that time was Australopithicus afarensis, a species previously thought too primitive to use stone tools, and supporting analysis of the hand of A. afarensis shows short fingers capable of fine-scale manipulation needed for tool use (Braun, 2010).

Figure 2: Cut marked bones, with scans, from Dikika Ethiopia

However, there is a strong possibility that the marks on the bones were caused by crocodiles, as they correspond equally to the tick shaped nicks that Nile crocodiles and Griffon vultures can create (Domínguez-Rodrigo, 2012). Another cause could be 'trampling', in this case the substrate movement of the fossils, which causes patterns of damage, mostly in lithics and bone, that make it extremely difficult to differentiate them from tools used for butchery (Nielsen, 1991), rendering hypotheses using such evidence questionable.

In conclusion, due to the lack of direct evidence from the Dikika site, the date still officially stands at 2.5-6mya, originating in eastern Africa, with archaeological evidence centered around the Middle Awash. That isn't to say that stone tools weren't used up until this point; as argued by Pitt Rivers, Oldowan tools were probably preceded by stone tools similar to those used by modern chimpanzees, we just don't have sufficient evidence to fully support this theory (Panger et al, 2002).

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Braun, D.R. (2010). Australopithecine Butchers. Nature, 466(7308), pp. 828.

Domínguez-Rodrigo, M., Pickering, T. R., & Bunn, H. T. (2010). Configurational approach to identifying the earliest hominin butchers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107(49), pp. 20929-20934.

Domínguez-Rodrigo, M., Pickering, T. R., & Bunn, H. T. (2012). Experimental study of cut marks made with rocks unmodified by human flaking and its bearing on claims of∼ 3.4-million-year-old butchery evidence from Dikika, Ethiopia. Journal of Archaeological Science, 39(2), pp. 205-214. 

McPherron, S. P., Alemseged, Z., Marean, C. W. et al. (2010). Evidence for stone-tool-assisted consumption of animal tissues before 3.39 million years ago at Dikika, Ethiopia. Nature, 466(7308), pp. 857-860. 

Nielsen, A.E. (1991). Trampling the Archaeological Record: An Experimental Study. American Antiquity, 56(3), pp. 483-503.

Panger, M. A., Brooks, A. S., Richmond, B. G., & Wood, B. (2002). Older than the Oldowan? Rethinking the emergence of hominin tool use. Evolutionary Anthropology: Issues, News, and Reviews, 11(6), pp. 235-245.

de la Torre, I. (2011). The Origins of Stone Tool Technology in Africa: a Historical Perspective. Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences, 366(1567), pp. 1028-1037.

Toth, N. & Schick,K. (2013). African Origins. In C. Scarre (ed) The Human Past: World Prehistory and the Development of Human Societies. Thames & Hudson: London pp. 46-83.

Wynn, T., Hernandez-Aguilar, R. A., Marchant, L. F., & Mcgrew, W. C. (2011). An ape's view of the Oldowan revisited. Evolutionary Anthropology: Issues, News, and Reviews, 20(5), pp. 181-197.

Image references:

Figure 1: http://lithiccastinglab.com/images/olduancoresgroup.jpg

Figure 2: McPherron, S. P., Alemseged, Z., Marean, C. W. et al. (2010). Evidence for stone-tool-assisted consumption of animal tissues before 3.39 million years ago at Dikika, Ethiopia. Nature, 466(7308), pp. 857-860.

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