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Oldest Tools in the World Found at Lake Turkana, Predate Early Humans


Half a million years before early humans arrived on the scene, the prehistoric hominins living in East Africa were shaping tools out of stone. These rare artifacts have been discovered by scientists working near Lake Turkana, Kenya. They are said to be the oldest stone tools ever found, predating previous tools by 700,000 years.

The landscape of fossil-rich Lake Turkana, Kenya. Wikimedia Commons

The team of scientists involved in the West Turkana Archaeological Project found the tools by chance when they began investigations at a previously unexplored site near Lake Turkana— Lomekwi 3. Amazingly, some of the tools were found on the surface of the soil, while others were discovered through excavation. They appear to have been created more than 3.3 million years ago.

The finds are significant, as they demonstrate that someone was shaping tools 500,000 years before our ancestors of the genus Homo, considered the first fully fledged humans. Researchers presume the tools were shaped by an earlier genus, possibly Australopithecus (often associated with the well-known fossil Lucy) who appeared in Africa approximately four million years ago.

The findings have been reported by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

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In all, the team, led by archaeologist Sonia Harmand of New York’s Stony Brook University, found 20 flakes, cores, and anvils used as a base to shape stones, with “telltale marks of intentional engineering”. They also uncovered an additional 130 other tools, according to science magazine Discover.

The Telegraph reports that the artifacts were clearly and deliberately “knapped” or flaked. It is not believed the tools were created by accidental fracture or natural forces.

Levallois point blademaking technique, a distinctive type of tool crafting or “knapping” developed by precursors to modern humans during the Palaeolithic. Representational image only. Wikimedia Commons

Knapping a stone piece produces smaller flakes with sharp edges. These sharp objects are useful for cutting meat off bones or working with plants. The original rock pieces possess characteristic marks, indicating they’ve been used in crafting.

Illustration of the species Homo habilis (genus Homo between 2.1 and 1.5 million years ago) shaping a tool by “knapping”. Credit: Vassar.edu

The unique Lake Turkana in Kenya is the world’s largest alkaline lake, as well as the world’s largest permanent desert lake. This archaeologically significant area has offered up fossils of major importance in the study of human origins and evolution.

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Satellite image of Lake Turkana illustrating its beautiful jade color. Due to amazing fossilised finds, the site is considered the cradle of humankind.

The team suggests the finds contribute significantly to the present understanding of hominid behavior, and its diversity through time. Harmand said of the discovery, “The Lomekwi 3 tools mark a new beginning to the known archaeological record.”

The remarkable discovery of the stone tools was announced at a meeting of the Paleoanthropology Society this month.

Featured Image: ‘The Hidden Treasures of Ethiopa’ exhibit at Houston Museum of Natural Science featuring a model of “Lucy”, Australopithecus Afarensis. The Turkana stone tools are thought to have been made by Australopithecus or a contemporary species. Jason Kuffer/ Flickr

By Liz Leafloor


World’s oldest tools found near Africa’s Lake Turkana

SAN FRANCISCO, April 16 (UPI) — A group of archaeologists say they’ve uncovered the world’s oldest tools. At 3.3 million years old, the newly unearthed tools predate the evolution of modern humans.

Researchers, who presented their findings Tuesday at the annual meeting of the Paleoanthropology Society in San Francisco, said the primitive stone tools were likely made by one of modern man’s ancestors, a hominid from the genus Australopithecus.

“The artifacts were clearly knapped [created by intentional flaking] and not the result of accidental fracture of rocks,” lead researcher Sonia Harmand, an archaeologist at Stony Brook University in New York, told the meeting, according to Science Magazine.

Until now, the record was held by a set of stone tools dated at 2.6 million years old, around the time the first evidence of Homo lineages appear. But the new set of tools — 20 well-preserved flakes, cores and anvils found just three miles west of Kenya’s Lake Turkana — suggest stone tool-making wasn’t exclusive to the first fully fledged humans.

“The obvious implication is that stone tools were invented and used by multiple lineages of early hominins,” John Hawks, a University of Wisconsin anthropologist who wasn’t involved in the discovery, explained on his blog. “Just as there were different styles of body shape and bipedal mechanics among early hominins, there were likely different styles of technical traditions.”

Hawks says the discovery isn’t all that surprising, given the fact chimpanzee populations have been shown to use rather complex tool sets, and to occasionally incorporate objects made from stone.

“All hominins added initially was the deliberate flaking of stone to make objects recognizable in the archaeological record,” Hawks added. “That is to say, humans have elaborated upon a technical ability that is latent among all the apes.”

In 2010, archaeologists reported finding animal bone incisions made by stone blades in Dikika region of Ethiopia. The bones and incisions were found to be more than 3 million years old, and were uncovered near the remains of an Australopithecus child. That discovery was treated with much skepticism, but the latest findings seem to corroborate the fact that stone tool-making isn’t the domain of modern man alone.

“With the cut marks from Dikika we had the victim,” Zeresenay Alemseged, a paleoanthropologist at the California Academy of Sciences and member of the 2010 research team, told the Independent. “Harmand’s discovery gives us the smoking gun.”


World's oldest tools found near Africa's Lake Turkana

SAN FRANCISCO, April 16 (UPI) -- A group of archaeologists say they've uncovered the world's oldest tools. At 3.3 million years old, the newly unearthed tools predate the evolution of modern humans.

Researchers, who presented their findings Tuesday at the annual meeting of the Paleoanthropology Society in San Francisco, said the primitive stone tools were likely made by one of modern man's ancestors, a hominid from the genus Australopithecus.

"The artifacts were clearly knapped [created by intentional flaking] and not the result of accidental fracture of rocks," lead researcher Sonia Harmand, an archaeologist at Stony Brook University in New York, told the meeting, according to Science Magazine.

Until now, the record was held by a set of stone tools dated at 2.6 million years old, around the time the first evidence of Homo lineages appear. But the new set of tools -- 20 well-preserved flakes, cores and anvils found just three miles west of Kenya's Lake Turkana -- suggest stone tool-making wasn't exclusive to the first fully fledged humans.

"The obvious implication is that stone tools were invented and used by multiple lineages of early hominins," John Hawks, a University of Wisconsin anthropologist who wasn't involved in the discovery, explained on his blog. "Just as there were different styles of body shape and bipedal mechanics among early hominins, there were likely different styles of technical traditions."

Hawks says the discovery isn't all that surprising, given the fact chimpanzee populations have been shown to use rather complex tool sets, and to occasionally incorporate objects made from stone.

"All hominins added initially was the deliberate flaking of stone to make objects recognizable in the archaeological record," Hawks added. "That is to say, humans have elaborated upon a technical ability that is latent among all the apes."

In 2010, archaeologists reported finding animal bone incisions made by stone blades in Dikika region of Ethiopia. The bones and incisions were found to be more than 3 million years old, and were uncovered near the remains of an Australopithecus child. That discovery was treated with much skepticism, but the latest findings seem to corroborate the fact that stone tool-making isn't the domain of modern man alone.

"With the cut marks from Dikika we had the victim," Zeresenay Alemseged, a paleoanthropologist at the California Academy of Sciences and member of the 2010 research team, told the Independent. "Harmand's discovery gives us the smoking gun."


Discoveries at Lake Turkana

Video. Discoveries at Lake Turkana reveal information about the history of human evolution.

Biology, Geography, Human Geography, Physical Geography

In 1995, National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Meave Leakey and her team made a very important discovery at Lake Turkana, Kenya. They found fossils of what turned out to be an Australopithecus anamensis. The discovery indicates that the date of the occurrence of bipedalism needed to be moved back by half a million years, to about 4.2 million years ago. This was not the first major paleoanthropologic discovery at Lake Turkana. In 1972, Bernard Ngenyeo, colleague to Richard and Meave Leakey, discovered the fossil of a Homo habilis, that was about 1.9 million years old. In 1984, the Leakey team found an almost-complete fossilized skeleton that was dated to about 1.5 million years ago. This was a Homo erectus and is famously known as "Turkana Boy."

This clip is an excerpt from the film Bones of Turkana. The film takes place in the area around ancient Lake Turkana. This area is known as a cradle of human life. There is evidence of hominids that lived here 4.2 million years ago. This film depicts the lives of some human ancestors.

This video from Bones of Turkana focuses on significant fossil discoveries made at Lake Turkana.

The video assumes some familiarity with the theory of evolution, the process of how organisms developed from earlier forms of life. Evolution is not a linear process, but a dynamic one. One species does not morph directly into another, but diverges from its ancestors. Evolution takes place throughout a population over a long period of time due to environmental pressures. This video sometimes uses the phrases "more advanced or less advanced" which actually don't apply to evolution. Species evolve to fit the particular environment that they are occupying at a given time, not to "advance" to a different evolutionary stage.

What evidence can you give for proving that Australopithecus anamensis was bipedal? Why was this significant?

The tibia, the large bone of the lower leg (shin), was very similar to a modern human tibia, indicating that Australopithecus anamensis may have walked in a similar fashion as modern humans. Many paleoanthropologists did not think that bipedalism occurred this early in hominid development. The discovery brings the date of bipedalism back by half a million years.

When did Homo habilis, or "handyman," start making stone tools? What can we infer about its brain size? What else can you predict from this information?

Homo habilis started making tools about 1.9 million years ago. We can infer that it had an increased brain size based on the shape of its skull. Using this information about increased brain size, we can predict that Homo habilis could complete a task more quickly than organisms with smaller brains, or that a greater range of communication would be possible.

He is the Homo erectus whose (almost) complete skeleton was found by Richard Leakey&rsquos team near Lake Turkana in the mid-1980s.

Compare and contrast Australopithecus anamensis, Homo habilis, and Homo erectus.

Compare: They are all hominids. They are all bipedal. Their fossils have all been found near Lake Turkana.

Contrast: Australopithecus anamensis is the oldest of the three, at 4.2 million years old. These hominids may have been the first bipeds. They were not yet making stone tools. Homo habilis is about 1.9 million years old. These hominids had a 30% larger brain than A. anamensis. They were probably one of the earliest hominids to make stone tools. Homo erectus is the youngest of the three, at 1.5 million years old. These hominids were bipedal, made stone tools, and perhaps had the brain size of a modern 2-year-old human. They are probably our closest ancestors.


Oldest Stone Tools Predate Humans. So Who Was Using Them?

Oldest Stone Tools OLDER Than Oldest Humans! So Who Used Them? Researchers working in Kenya have just discovered a set of tools that are about 3.3 million years old—setting the record for the oldest tools discovered, 700,000 years older than those discovered in Ethiopia. But what makes the discovery so puzzling is the fact that they are older than the earliest genus Homo human fossils. So who did they belong top? The tools were discovered in the Kenyan Rift Valley by archaeologists who believe they were made by australopithecines. A total of 20 stone flakes and anvils were found and are said to predate Homo humans by 500,000 years. Until now, it was believed that the creation of stone tools started with Homo—but this discovery challenges that.

Interestingly, tools in the area have been discovered on the surface as well as below ground. The age of the tools was determined by on stratigraphic position in relation to layers of volcanic ash. The stone tools that had previously been discovered in Ethiopia were dated 2.6 million years old.

A team headed by Sonia Harmand of Stony Brook University in New York made the latest discovery—by accident. The team was looking for remains of Kenyanthripos platyops when they took a wrong turn and ended up at a different site, just to the west of Lake Turkana. After discovering tools on the surface, they dug deeper and recovered almost 20 preserved flakes.

Experts who’ve examined the tools say some are very crudely made, but “there’s no doubt it’s purposeful” tool-making. The discovery suggests the knowledge of how to make them could have died out with early human ancestors and then been “reinvented” several millennia later.

“The Lomekwi 3 tools mark a new beginning to the known archaeological record,” Harmand says.


World's Oldest Stone Tools Predate Humans

The oldest handmade stone tools discovered yet predate any known humans and may have been wielded by an as-yet-unknown species, researchers say.

The 3.3-million-year-old stone artifacts are the first direct evidence that early human ancestors may have possessed the mental abilities needed to figure out how to make razor-sharp stone tools. The discovery also rewrites the book on the kind of environmental and evolutionary pressures that drove the emergence of toolmaking.

Chimpanzees and monkeys are known to use stones as tools, picking up rocks to hammer open nuts and solve other problems. However, until now, only members of the human lineage — the genus Homo, which includes the modern human species Homo sapiens and extinct humans such as Homo erectus — were thought capable of making stone tools. [See Photos of the Oldest Stone Tools]

Ancient stone artifacts from East Africa were first uncovered at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania in the mid-20th century. Those stone tools were later associated with fossils of the ancient human species Homo habilis, discovered in the 1960s.

"The traditional view for decades was that the earliest stone tools were made by the first members of Homo," study lead author Sonia Harmand, an archaeologist at Stony Brook University in New York, told Live Science. "The idea 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."

However, there were hints of primitive tool use before Homo habilis. In 2009, researchers at Dikika, Ethiopia, dug up animal bones nearly 3.4 million years old that had slashes and other cut marks, evidence that someone used stones to trim flesh from bone and perhaps crush bones to get at the marrow inside. This is the earliest evidence of meat and marrow consumption by hominins — all the species leading to and including the human lineage after the split from the ancestors of chimpanzees. No tools were found at that site, so it was unclear whether the marks were made with handmade tools or just naturally sharp rocks.

Now, scientists report stone artifacts that date back long before any known human fossils. Until now, the earliest known tools were about 2.8 million years old, the researchers said. The artifacts are by far the oldest handmade stone tools yet discovered — the previous record-holders, known as Oldowan stone tools, were about 2.6 million years old.

"We were not surprised to find stone tools older than 2.6 million years, because paleoanthropologists have been saying for the last decade that they should be out there somewhere," Harmand said. "But we were surprised that the tools we found are so much older than the Oldowan, at 3.3 million years old."

It remains unknown what species made these stone tools. They could have been created by an as-yet-unknown extinct human species, or by Australopithecus, which is currently the leading contender for the ancestor of the human lineage, or by Kenyanthropus, a 3.3-million-year-old skull of which was discovered in 1999 about a half-mile (1 kilometer) from the newfound tools. It remains uncertain exactly how Kenyanthropus relates to either Homo or Australopithecus. [Gallery: See Images of Our Closest Human Ancestor]

"Sometimes the best discoveries are the ones that raise more questions than provide answers," study co-author Jason Lewis, a paleoanthropologist at Stony Brook University and Rutgers University in New Jersey, told Live Science. "In any of these cases the story is equally new and interesting. We are comfortable not having all of the answers now."

The stone tools were discovered in the desert badlands of northwestern Kenya, where the arid, rocky terrain resembles a New Mexican landscape.

The artifacts were found next to Lake Turkana in 2011 almost by accident. "We were driving in the dry riverbed and took the left branch instead of the right, and got off course," Harmand said. "Essentially, we got lost and ended up in a new area that looked promising. Something was really unique about this place, we could tell that this zone had a lot of hidden areas just waiting to be explored."

By the end of the 2012 field season, excavations at the site, named Lomekwi 3, had uncovered 149 "Lomekwian" stone artifacts linked with toolmaking.

"It is really exciting and very moving to be the first person to pick up a stone artifact since its original maker put it down millions of years ago," Harmand said.

The researchers tried using stones to knock off and shape so-called flakes or blades — a process known as knapping — to better understand how these Lomekwian stone artifacts might have been made. They concluded the techniques used may represent a stage between the pounding used by earlier hominins and the knapping of later toolmakers.

"This is a momentous and well-researched discovery," paleoanthropologist Bernard Wood, a professor of human origins at George Washington University, who was not involved in the study, said in a statement. "I have seen some of these artifacts in the flesh, and I am convinced they were fashioned deliberately."

Analysis of carbon isotopes in the soil and animal fossils at the site allowed the scientists to reconstruct what the vegetation there used to be like. This led to another surprise — back then, the area was a partially wooded, shrubby environment.

Conventional thinking has been that sophisticated toolmaking came in response to a change in climate that led to shrinking forests and the spread of savannah grasslands. Stone blades likely helped ancient humans get food by helping them cut meat off the carcasses of animals, given how there was then less food such as fruit to be found in the forest. However, these findings suggest that Lomekwian stone tools may have been used for breaking open nuts or tubers, bashing open dead logs to get at insects inside, or maybe something not yet thought of. [Denisovan Gallery: Tracing the Genetics of Human Ancestors]

"The Lomekwi 3 evidence suggests that important evolutionary changes that would later be really important for Homo to survive on the savannah were actually evolving beforehand, in a still-wooded environment," Lewis said.

"The capabilities of our ancestors and the environmental forces leading to early stone technology are a great scientific mystery," Richard Potts, director of the Human Origins Program at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, who was not involved in the research, said in a statement. The newly dated tools "begin to lift the veil on that mystery, at an earlier time than expected."

This discovery also has implications for understanding the evolution of the human brain, researchers said. Toolmaking required a level of dexterity and grip that suggests that changes in the brain and spinal tract needed for such activity could have evolved before 3.3 million years ago.

The scientists are now looking at the surfaces and edges of the tools under microscopes and with laser scans to try to reconstruct how they were used, "and also studying the sediment in which they were found to search for trace elements or residues of any possible plant or animal tissues that could be left on them after use," Harmand said.

The site is still under excavation, and Harmand said other artifacts could exist from early attempts at knapping.

"We think there are older, even more rudimentary, stone tools out there to be found, and we will be looking for them over the coming field seasons," he added.

The scientists detailed their findings in the May 21 issue of the journal Nature.

Copyright 2015 LiveScience, a Purch company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


6. Aterian Beads (110,000 years old)

Grotte des Pigeons is a cave in Eastern Morocco that for ages wanted nothing more than for people to forget it had such a stupid name. Then, sometime in the mid-20 th Century, some archeology guys came along and decided, hey, this looks like a pretty good spot to dig. So they dug and they dug and they dug until suddenly everyone was too busy exclaiming over all the crazy awesomeness in Grotte des Pigeons to concentrate on its stupid name. There were ashes and tools and carved rocks and all sorts of treasures. But the biggest treasure of all may have been the beads.

Made of shells with perforated holes, some still with traces of red ochre on them, the beads were likely the earliest examples of jewelry we have. The researchers dated them to an impossibly-distant 110,000 years ago, a time when the wheel was a far-off dream, and the concept of agriculture was like witchcraft. Yet our ancestors were still making jewelry. Even in a world of unrelenting danger, bear attacks and lifespans of under 30 years, we still just wanted to look good. We can’t tell if that’s shameful or the coolest thing ever.


World's oldest stone tools that predate humans found


In a discovery that could rewrite the early human history, archaeologists have found the world's oldest handmade stone tools in Kenya, dating back 3.3 million years, long before the advent of modern humans.

The tools, whose makers may or may not have been some sort of human ancestor, push the known date of such tools back by 700,000 years.

They also may challenge the notion that our own most direct ancestors were the first to bang two rocks together to create a new technology, researchers said.

The discovery is the first evidence that an even earlier group of proto-humans may have had the thinking abilities needed to figure out how to make sharp-edged tools.

The stone tools mark "a new beginning to the known archaeological record," say the authors of a new paper about the discovery, published in the journal Nature.

"The whole site's surprising, it just rewrites the book on a lot of things that we thought were true," said geologist Chris Lepre of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and Rutgers University, a co-author of the paper who precisely dated the artifacts.

The tools "shed light on an unexpected and previously unknown period of hominin behaviour and can tell us a lot about cognitive development in our ancestors that we can't understand from fossils alone," said lead author Sonia Harmand, of the Turkana Basin Institute at Stony Brook University.

Hominins are a group of species that includes modern humans, Homo sapiens, and our closest evolutionary ancestors.

Anthropologists long thought that our relatives in the genus Homo - the line leading directly to Homo sapiens - were the first to craft such stone tools.

But researchers have been uncovering tantalising clues that some other, earlier species of hominin, distant cousins, might have figured it out.

The researchers do not know who made these oldest of tools. But earlier finds suggest a possible answer: The skull of a 3.3-million-year-old hominin, Kenyanthropus platytops, was found in 1999 about a kilometre from the tool site

Listened about this on the radio on the way to work, and apart from it being great news, what is of more interest to me is the way scientist welcomed this news.

Firstly, some on this very site tried to prove that scientist don't like if someone shows evidence to something that is not already in history books. This simple find proves as good evidence that those claims have no grounds.

Secondly, many here accused science on constant changes, but this is it - you have to adopt new find and evidence. Ignoring it would be anti-science.

Seems every day we are learning more about our past.

The tools includes sharp-edged flakes, hammers and anvils

This stone tool is known as a core - flakes, used for cutting, are sheared away from its edges

The tools were found near to Lake Turkana in northern Kenya

Before this discovery, Homo habilis was thought to be the first species to use stone tools

Australopithecus afarensis is a primitive species with both human and ape-like features


All images are from BBC site.

This is a very interesting find because it also has implications for how the human brain evolved.

About the dating methods utilized, magnetic polar shifts are recorded on the geomagnetic polar time scale - the rocks or objects are measured with a magnetometer and the average directional polarity can then be used to date the object.

Quite sure the Creationists are hard at work figuring out how to come up with some bs excuse as to why the authors are completely wrong.

Lepre said a layer of volcanic ash below the tool site set a "floor" on the site's age: It matched ash elsewhere that had been dated to about 3.3 million years ago, based on the ratio of argon isotopes in the material. To more sharply define the time period of the tools, Lepre and co-author and Lamont-Doherty colleague Dennis Kent examined magnetic minerals beneath, around and above the spots where the tools were found.

The Earth's magnetic field periodically reverses itself, and the chronology of those changes is well documented going back millions of years. "We essentially have a magnetic tape recorder that records the magnetic field . the music of the outer core," Kent said. By tracing the variations in the polarity of the samples, they dated the site to 3.33 million to 3.11 million years.

If they are confirmed to be 3.3 million year old tools created by a hominid then I guess this means more understanding of the evolution of the human brain, as a skill such as tool making requires a good level of hand motor control, besides the cognitive ability that enabled them to think they needed tools and how to make them. wow!

Well actually chimps use stone tools, so cognitive ability to use them doesn't need anymore brain power than chimps. If they had better hand to finger coordination then shaping rock tools probably wouldn't beyond them. Where chimps fall short, is when it comes to keeping possession of tools for long periods without needing them. They just can't really consciously plan days ahead.

The ability of long term foresight is when the big bang of the hominid brain occurred.

True, chimps do use stones to crack nuts but the ancient tools found were actually 'made' by the hominid whilst chimps simply use a stone, that's the difference in cognitive abilities I was referring to. unless chimps do chip stones too but I have never heard of that. I think it shows a change in brain activity as they did create different types of tools for different uses/needs.

Replace your ignorance with knowledge:

Thank you for pointing it out. Not sure what mods will do, IMHO this is more origin topic then lost or ancient civilization.

I guess this thread will amalgamate with the other, but I do ponder.
Thanks gethyped for the links.

SO they are all specially "Knapped" tools are they? All created by an intelligence, so it must be a Homo Man thing then obviously. so the experts all decree.

But lets see. we have evidence that chimps etc (otters, ravens, birds etc) use stone/wood tools to help find food.
Whether digging for grubs/ants/honey etc or smashing stones to opens nuts/shellfish etc.

How likely would it be. say 3.3 million years ago, that an ape, not yet a "hominid", grabbed a nice hand sized roundish rock, near a river etc, and started to smash his nuts or shell, also sitting on another heavier rock, because he knew this would break the food. Anyway, away he goes, smash smash ouch, damn, just hit his leg, smash, smash, each time the slippery food slides around on the large rock, each time he misses the food and Hits The Rock, in doing so flakes bits of Rock Off His Hand Held Rock. actually Knapping the rock (but he doesnt know that).

Thats right, he accidently creates knapping on his piece of stone, that he had no idea he was doing. that suddenly 3.3million years later, some University educated smart ape comes along, see the chips where he missed the food and hit the rock, and declares. Oh Oh an Intelligent Man Thingy has created special tools with his super mind.

When in actual fact, the "Tool" was accidently made by flailing away at some food and missing 5 out of 10 times.

Be Honest people, how many times have ATS readers. cut themselves with a knife, pricked themselves with a needle, banged their finger/thumb/leg or hand or head with a hammer/door/table, someone elses head etc etc.

Miraculously 3.3 million year old ape, never misses when he hits his food, and flakes pieces of rock off his tool?
He must be the smartest most intelligent Ape that ever lived, including now.

Please, these scientists are stretching reality more and more. the more they learn, the less they know.


Chipping Away At The Mystery Of The Oldest Tools Ever Found

An ancient stone tool unearthed at the excavation site near Kenya's Lake Turkana. It's not just the shape and sharp edges that suggest it was deliberately crafted, the researchers say, but also the dozens of stone flakes next to it that were part of the same kit. MPK-WTAP hide caption

An ancient stone tool unearthed at the excavation site near Kenya's Lake Turkana. It's not just the shape and sharp edges that suggest it was deliberately crafted, the researchers say, but also the dozens of stone flakes next to it that were part of the same kit.

A scientific discovery in Kenya, first reported in April, challenges conventional wisdom about human history, say the scientists who made the discovery and are now releasing the details. The scientists say the collection of stone tools they turned up near Lake Turkana were made long before the first humans are thought to have evolved.

This week the scientists unveil the details of their discovery in the journal Nature.

"The magic is being able to touch these stone tools for the first time, after 3.3 million years."

Sonia Harmand, archaeologist, Stony Brook University

What's remarkable about the find is that, up until now, scientists widely believed that humans invented stone-tool making. In fact, anthropologists call the earliest humans Homo habilis -- meaning handy man.

The toolmaking technique associated with humans involves whacking rocks together in just the right way to fashion sharp tools. Until recently, the evidence — fossil bones and very old tools — has suggested this talent emerged about 2.5 million years ago.

But a team led by scientists from New York's Stony Brook University discovered stone tools that are much older than that, in a desert area west of Kenya's Lake Turkana. The tools are now in a museum in Nairobi.

Archaeologists Sonia Harmand and Jason Lewis, of Stony Brook University, examine stone tools. Initially, she says, the scientists didn't realize the tools they found dated to hundreds of thousands of years before the first humans. MPK-WTAP hide caption

Archaeologists Sonia Harmand and Jason Lewis, of Stony Brook University, examine stone tools. Initially, she says, the scientists didn't realize the tools they found dated to hundreds of thousands of years before the first humans.

Team leader Sonia Harmand says Sammy Lokorodi, a Kenyan goatherd and fossil hunter on the team, found the first stone tool on the surface. Harmand knew it was old but at first didn't quite know what they had.

"We were very, very excited," she says. "But at that time, we didn't know, at all, we were going to have these stone tools begin at 3.3. million years ago." That's hundreds of thousands of years before humans evolved from apelike ancestors.

Reliably confirming the age of this assemblage of stones was just the start. The researchers also had to prove that the sharp rocks had actually been crafted by hand and weren't just stones accidentally shaped like tools by natural forces — wind or water, for example.

"The jumping up and down lasted a couple of minutes in the field," says Jason Lewis, another archaeologist and member of the Stony Brook team. "We very quickly had to put our nose to the grindstone to put everything together to convince the rest of the world."

What convinced the team (and other scientists who have seen the tools) was the fact that there was a whole stone-tool-making kit right there — all in one place. The kit was just like the ones the first humans used it included big core stones, flat anvil stones and sharp flakes.

To make a tool, you place the core stone on the anvil stone and strike it hard with another rock, Lewis says. Certain marks on the stones found in Kenya confirm they were manipulated this way.

"It's clear that the intention was to hit the stones together in such a way as to break off a series of sharp flakes," says Lewis.

And they found lots of these sharp flakes at the site. These are the "knives" of the Stone Age. They might have been used to cut meat off bone, or perhaps to cut up vegetable matter. In all, the team found more than 140 toolmaking artifacts at the site. While they weren't as sophisticated as tools that have been associated with the first humans, they were definitely crafted intentionally.

And at least one of the flakes actually fit perfectly into the grooves of one of the core stones. Harmand says that was the cherry on the cake — further evidence that someone had worked on these rocks at the site.

View of the excavation site near Lake Turkana. MPK-WTAP hide caption


Humans Shaped Stone Axes 1.8 Million Years Ago, Study Says

A new study suggests that Homo erectus, a precursor to modern humans, was using advanced tool-making methods in East Africa 1.8 million years ago, at least 300,000 years earlier than previously thought. The study, published this week in Nature, raises new questions about where these tall and slender early humans originated and how they developed sophisticated tool-making technology.

Homo erectus appeared about 2 million years ago, and ranged across Asia and Africa before hitting a possible evolutionary dead-end, about 70,000 years ago. Some researchers think Homo erectus evolved in East Africa, where many of the oldest fossils have been found, but the discovery in the 1990s of equally old Homo erectus fossils in the country of Georgia has led others to suggest an Asian origin. The study in Nature does not resolve the debate but adds new complexity. At 1.8 million years ago, Homo erectus in Dmanisi, Georgia was still using simple chopping tools while in West Turkana, Kenya, according to the study, the population had developed hand axes, picks and other innovative tools that anthropologists call &ldquoAcheulian.&rdquo

&ldquoThe Acheulian tools represent a great technological leap,&rdquo said study co-author Dennis Kent, a geologist with joint appointments at Rutgers University and Columbia University&rsquos Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. &ldquoWhy didn&rsquot Homo erectus take these tools with them to Asia?&rdquo

Using magnetic stratigraphy, Lamont-Doherty scientist Chris Lepre dated the ancient sediments where Acheulian tools had been found earlier. Credit: Voice of America.

In the summer of 2007, a team of French and American researchers traveled to Kenya&rsquos Lake Turkana in Africa&rsquos Great Rift Valley, where earth&rsquos plates are tearing apart and some of the earliest humans first appear. Anthropologist Richard Leakey&rsquos famous find--Turkana Boy, a Homo erectus teenager who lived about 1.5 million years ago&mdashwas excavated on Lake Turkana&rsquos western shore and is still the most complete early human skeleton found so far.

Six miles from Turkana Boy, the researchers headed for Kokiselei, an archeological site where both Acheulian and simpler &ldquoOldowan&rdquo tools had been found earlier. Their goal: to establish the age of the tools by dating the surrounding sediments. Past flooding in the area had left behind layers of silt and clay that hardened into mudstone, preserving the direction of Earth&rsquos magnetic field at the time in the stone&rsquos magnetite grains. The researchers chiseled away chunks of the mudstone at Kokiselei to later analyze the periodic polarity reversals and come up with ages. At Lamont-Doherty&rsquos Paleomagnetics Lab, they compared the magnetic intervals with other stratigraphic records to date the archeological site to 1.76 million years.

&ldquoWe suspected that Kokiselei was a rather old site, but I was taken aback when I realized that the geological data indicated it was the oldest Acheulian site in the world,&rdquo said the study&rsquos lead author, Christopher Lepre, a geologist who also has joint appointments at Rutgers and Lamont-Doherty. The oldest Acheulian tools previously identified appear in Konso, Ethiopia, about 1.4 million years ago, and India, between 1.5 million and 1 million years ago.

Tools made by early humans were found at Kokiselei, Kenya, in Lake Turkana's
ancient shoreline sediments pictured above. Credit: Lamont-Doherty.

The Acheulian tools at Kokiselei were found just above a sediment layer associated with a polarity interval called the &ldquoOlduvai Subchron.&rdquo It is named after Tanzania&rsquos Olduvai Gorge, where pioneering work in the 1930s by Leakey&rsquos parents, Louis and Mary, uncovered a goldmine of early human fossils. In a study in Earth and Planetary Science Letters last year, Lepre and Kent found that a well-preserved Homo erectus skull found on east side of Lake Turkana, at Koobi Fora Ridge, also sat above the Olduvai Subchron interval, making the skull and Acheulian tools in West Turkana about the same age.

Anthropologists have yet to find an Acheulian hand axe gripped in a Homo erectus fist but most credit Homo erectus with developing the technology. Acheulian tools were larger and heavier than the pebble-choppers used previously and also had chiseled edges that would have helped Homo erectus butcher elephants and other scavenged game left behind by larger predators or even have allowed the early humans to hunt such prey themselves. &ldquoYou could whack away at a joint and dislodge the shoulder from the arm, leg or hip,&rdquo said Eric Delson, a paleoanthropologist at CUNY&rsquos Lehman College who was not involved in the study. &ldquoThe tools allowed you to cut open and dismember an animal to eat it.&rdquo

The skill involved in manufacturing such a tool suggests that Homo erectus was dexterous and able to think ahead. At Kokiselei, the presence of both tool-making methods&mdashOldowan and Acheulian-- could mean that Homo erectus and its more primitive cousin Homo habilis lived at the same time, with Homo erectus carrying the Acheulian technology to the Mediterranean region about a million years ago, the study authors hypothesize. Delson wonders if Homo erectus may have migrated to Dmanisi, Georgia, but &ldquolost&rdquo the Acheulian technology on the way.

The East African landscape that Homo erectus walked from about 2 million to 1.5 million years ago was becoming progressively drier, with savanna grasslands spreading in response to changes in the monsoon rains. &ldquoWe need to understand also the ancient environment because this gives us an insight into how processes of evolution work&mdashhow shifts in early human biology and behavior are potentially caused by changes in the climate, vegetation or animal life that is particular to a habitat,&rdquo said Lepre. The team is currently excavating a more than 2 million year old site in Kenya to learn more about the early Oldowan period.

The study&rsquos other authors are: Helen Roche, Sonia Harmand, Jean-Philippe Brugal, Pierre-Jean Texier and Arnaud Lenoble at France&rsquos National Center of Scientific Research Rhonda Quinn, Seton Hall University and Craig Feibel, Rutgers University.