History

Tool Use by Early Humans Started Much Earlier

Tools used by early humans started much earlier. Learn more about the tools used by early human starting much earlier in this article.

THE GIST

- The earliest known evidence for stone tool use and meat eating among early humans is found.

- The evidence -- butchered, fossilized bones -- dates to roughly 3.4 million years ago.

- It's believed the ancestor Australopithecus afarensis (to which "Lucy" belongs) used the tools.

Fossilized bones scarred by hack marks reveal that our human ancestors were using stone tools and eating meat from large mammals nearly a million years earlier than previously thought, according to a new study that pushes back both of these human activities to roughly 3.4 million years ago.

The first known human ancestor tool wielder and meat lover was Australopithecus afarensis, according to the study, published in the latest issue of Nature. This species, whose most famous representative is the skeleton "Lucy," was slender, toothy and small-brained.

"By pushing the date for tool use and meat eating in our lineage back by around 1 million years, our finds show that tool use and meat eating was not unique to (the genus) Homo, a widely accepted notion in our field," co-author Zeresenay Alemseged told Discovery News.

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"Also, by showing that A. afarensis was involved in these activities, we showed that you do not need a large brain to do this," added Alemseged, director of the Department of Anthropology at the California Academy of Sciences.

"This is a kind of find that will force us to revise our human evolution and anthropology textbooks."

He and his colleagues from the Dikika Research Project made the determinations while working in the Afar Region of Ethiopia. There they unearthed two fossilized bones bearing stone tool marks. One of the bones belonged to a large, buffalo-sized, hoofed mammal, while the other was possibly from an Impala, gazelle or antelope.

Various types of electron microscopy, along with chemical analysis, determined that cut marks were inflicted while one or more individuals carved meat off the bones with a sharp stone tool. Percussion marks were also created when a stone tool broke open the bones to extract their nutritious marrow.

The fossilized bones were found sandwiched between volcanic deposits, which permitted reliable dating of them. Before this discovery, the world's oldest human evidence for butchery dated to 2.5 million years ago and came from Bouri and Gona, Ethiopia. No human remains were found in association with those fossilized prey bones, but A. afarensis remains were previously unearthed near the recent Afar Region discoveries.

Since the Afar stone tools were transported to the kill or scavenge site from nearly four miles away, A. afarensis must have valued the sharp objects. What's unclear, however, is whether or not the ancient hominids made the stones themselves, or just picked already sharp stones up from the ground.

Lead author Shannon McPherron told Discovery News that he and his team plan to next look for "the locations on the landscape where A. afarensis (likely) broke one stone with another to create a sharp-edged flake."

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"This activity leaves behind debris, unused flakes and perhaps the stone from which the flakes were removed, which we can recognize as evidence of stone tool manufacture," said McPherron, a Paleolithic archaeologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.

Alemseged added that "meat consumption has definitely contributed greatly to tool technology."

Archaeologist David Braun of the University of Cape Town agrees. In a separate Nature commentary, Braun wrote that improved butchery methods "may have set the stage for a greater reliance on animal tissues and more sophisticated stone-tool production."

Since fossils for A. afarensis have been found in Kenya and Tanzania, in addition to Ethiopia, Braun is hopeful that future research can determine if this species was "a habitual tool user" or not.

"More surprises surely await us in the fossil-rich sedimentary basins of East Africa," Braun concluded.

These two stone tools made from modified bones were found in Dikika, Ethiopia. The fossils suggest early humans were using tools some 3.4 million years ago.

Back in the Beginning

To put a human face on our ancestors, scientists from the Senckenberg Research Institute used sophisticated methods to form 27 model heads based on tiny bone fragments, teeth and skulls collected from across the globe. The heads are on display for the first time together at the Senckenberg Natural History Museum in Frankfurt, Germany. This model is Sahelanthropus tchadensis, also nicknamed "Toumai," who lived 6.8 million years ago. Parts of its jaw bone and teeth were found nine years ago in the Djurab desert in Chad. It's one of the oldest hominid specimens ever found.

Australopithecus afarensis

With each new discovery, paleoanthropologists have to rewrite the origins of man's ancestors, adding on new branches and tracking when species split. This model was fashioned from pieces of a skull and jaw found among the remains of 17 pre-humans (nine adults, three adolescents and five children) which were discovered in the Afar Region of Ethiopia in 1975. The ape-man species, Australopithecus afarensis, is believed to have lived 3.2 million years ago. Several more bones from this species have been found in Ethiopia, including the famed "Lucy," a nearly complete A. afarensis skeleton found in Hadar.

Australopithecus africanus

Meet "Mrs. Ples," the popular nickname for the most complete skull of an Australopithecus africanus, unearthed in Sterkfontein, South Africa in 1947. It is believed she lived 2.5 million years ago (although the sex of the fossil is not entirely certain). Crystals found on her skull suggest that she died after falling into a chalk pit, which was later filled with sediment. A. africanus has long puzzled scientists because of its massive jaws and teeth, but they now believe the species' skull design was optimal for cracking nuts and seeds.

Paranthropus aethiopicus

The skull of this male adult was found on the western shore of Lake Turkana in Kenya in 1985. The shape of the mouth indicates that he had a strong bite and could chew plants. He is believed to have lived in 2.5 million years ago and is classified as Paranthropus aethiopicus. Much is still unknown about this species because so few reamins of P. aethiopicus have been found.

Paranthropus boisei

Researchers shaped this skull of "Zinj," found in 1959. The adult male lived 1.8 million years ago in the Olduvai Gorge of Tanzania. His scientific name is Paranthropus boisei, though he was originally called Zinjanthropus boisei -- hence the nickname. First discovered by anthropologist Mary Leakey, the well-preserved cranium has a small brain cavity. He would have eaten seeds, plants and roots which he probably dug with sticks or bones.

Homo rudolfensis

This model of a sub-human species -- Homo rudolfensis -- was made from bone fragments found in Koobi Fora, Kenya, in 1972. The adult male is believed to have lived about 1.8 million years ago. He used stone tools and ate meat and plants. H. Rudolfensis' distinctive features include a flatter, broader face and broader postcanine teeth, with more complex crowns and roots. He is also recognized as having a larger cranium than his contemporaries.

Homo ergaster

The almost perfectly preserved skeleton of the "Turkana Boy" is one of the most spectacular discoveries in paleoanthropology. Judging from his anatomy, scientists believe this Homo ergaster was a tall youth about 13 to 15 years old. According to research, the boy died beside a shallow river delta, where he was covered by alluvial sediments. Comparing the shape of the skull and teeth, H. ergaster had a similiar head structure to the Asian Homo erectus.

Homo heidelbergensis

This adult male, Homo heidelbergensis, was discovered in in Sima de los Huesos, Spain in 1993. Judging by the skull and cranium, scientists believe he probably died from a massive infection that caused a facial deformation. The model, shown here, does not include the deformity. This species is believed to be an ancestor of Neanderthals, as seen in the shape of his face. "Miquelon," the nickname of "Atapuerca 5", lived about 500,000 to 350,000 years ago and fossils of this species have been found in Italy, France and Greece.

Homo neanderthalensis

The "Old Man of La Chapelle" was recreated from the skull and jaw of a Homo neanderthalensis male found near La Chapelle-aux-Saints, in France in 1908. He lived 56,000 years ago. His relatively old age, thought to be between 40 to 50 years old, indicates he was well looked after by a clan. The old man's skeleton indicates he suffered from a number of afflictions, including arthritis, and had numerous broken bones. Scientists at first did not realize the age and afflicted state of this specimen when he was first discovered. This led them to incorrectly theorize that male Neanderthals were hunched over when they walked.

Homo floresiensis

The skull and jaw of this female "hobbit" was found in Liang Bua, Flores, Indonesia, in 2003. She was about 1 meter tall (about 3'3") and lived about 18,000 years ago. The discovery of her species, Homo floresiensis, brought into question the belief that Homo sapiens was the only form of mankind for the past 30,000 years. Scientists are still debating whether Homo floresiensis was its own species, or merely a group of diseased modern humans. Evidence is mounting that these small beings were, in fact, a distinct human species.

Homo sapiens

Bones can only tell us so much. Experts often assume or make educated guesses to fill in the gaps in mankind's family tree, and to develop a sense what our ancestors may have looked like. Judging from skull and mandible fragments found in a cave in Israel in 1969, this young female Homo sapien lived between 100,000 and 90,000 years ago. Her bones indicate she was about 20 years old. Her shattered skull was found among the remains of 20 others in a shallow grave.