Did Australopithecus make stone tools?

The first stone tools manufactured by our ancestors were part of the Oldowan industry. This toolkit consists of small sharp flakes which could be used for a wide range of cutting tasks. These were created by hitting a core with a hammerstone, smashing off the

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ResearchBlogging.orgThe first stone tools manufactured by our ancestors were part of the Oldowan industry. This toolkit consists of small sharp flakes which could be used for a wide range of cutting tasks. These were created by hitting a core with a hammerstone, smashing off the aforementioned flake. The core itself could also be shaped by removing flakes in from certain places, turning it into a more substantial tool which may have been used for cutting wood and other hard substances or digging up roots, tubers and other buried items.

These stone tools were first found at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania (from which the Oldowan derives its name) which dates to ~1.75 million years ago. The tools were found in association with the remains of Homo habilis and Paranthropus bosei. Given that the former belongs to the only genus known to make stone tools and the technology persists long after the Paranthropines went extinct everyone concluded that  Homo habilis was the most likely manufacturer of these stone tools. The name of H. habilis itself is even a tribute to this fact, being latin for “handy man.”

However, subsequent discoveries of the Oldowan have pushed back the date for its appearance from 1.75 million years ago to 2.5 million years ago. The “new” oldest site is Gona, Ethiopia. Conversely the oldest finds of Homo habilis are only 2.33 million years old. Whilst its possible that there are older specimens we have yet to find, this also raises the intriguing possibility that  stone tools were first manufactured by an earlier species. Further, since Homo habilis is the oldest member of Homo this means that stone tools may have been manufactured by the Australopithecines.

The genus Australopithecus appeared ~4 million years ago and is the ancestor of Homo and thus modern humans. Despite this connection to later stone tool capable species nobody really believed that Australopithecus was capable of creating such technology. This is because they are markedly similar to apes in many aspects, with long arms, long curved fingers, short legs, small brains and they spent a lot of time in the trees (to name but a few similarities). Given that no modern ape is capable of manufacturing tools as sophisticated as even the earliest, most primitive Oldowan it was believed the ape-like Australopiths could not either.

Capuchins are brilliant.

Modern primates do use stones to extract resources from their environment, but these exploit rocks as they occur naturally. For example, Capuchin monkeys (the best primates ever) place nuts on a hard anvil and then smack them with rocks*, cracking the nuts and giving them access to the delicious center. Although this behaviour is quite sophisticated – the Capuchins have learnt to dry nuts out in the sun first to soften them up – they carry out no alteration to these raw materials (like Oldowan cores), nor produce new tools from them (like Oldowan flakes). Whilst chimps in captivity can be trained to carry out these tasks the results are still markedly different from Oldowan technology being much smaller and less refined.

This difference stems from the fact that chimpanzees are quadrupeds and thus have to sacrifice some dexterity in their hands for weight bearing adaptations. Their wrist and elbow joints are less mobile than a humans’ to increase stability when they walk on their hands. Since Australopithecus was never a quadruped then they likely lacked these limitations, so tool use amongst that genus is not as implausible as once thought. Further, Australopithecus africanus appears to have developed the wider fingertips humans have ~3 million years ago. These wider fingertips increase the stability of small items you hold in a precision, pincer grip such as stone tools.

The chronological relationship of hominin taxa. Distance between them roughly correlates to anatomical similarity. Au. garhi is 4 whilst Homo is 9

The chronological relationship of hominin taxa. Distance between them roughly correlates to anatomical similarity. Au. garhi is 4, Homo is 9

However, this anatomical evidence is merely circumstantial. Are there any more definitive associations between Australopiths and stone tools? Yes! Australopithecus garhi is one of the last Australopiths, appearing just before the emergence of Homo habilis. This close temporal association has led some to suggest that it is the ancestor of our genus, although the lack of distinct Homo-like traits make this far from certain. Nonetheless it seems to be closely related to Homo somehow (although most likely as an extinct sister lineage).

Australopithecus garhi was found at Bouri, Ethiopia, a mere 96 km from Hadar were the earliest Oldowan tools were found. Further, they’re dated to ~2.5 million years ago making them contemporary with the aforementioned tools. Oldowan tools were also found at Bouri but they were located on the surface of the site. Not being associated with any sediments they could not be dated, thus we do not know whether they are contemporary with Au. garhi. However bovid bones (“bovid” being “from the cow family”) were recovered from  the same layers as the Au. garhi specimens and thus could be securely linked to them.

Some of the bones with tool marks from Bouri

Some of the bones with tool marks from Bouri

These bones had cut marks on them which, when analysed under a microscope, are consistent with stone tools. There were also percussion scars, consistent with the bones being hit with hammer stones. A femur from a horse species was found nearby that also had similar stone tool damage, consistent with hominins dismembering and filleting the leg. As such these bones provide conclusive evidence of hominins at Bouri using stone tools 2.5 million years ago. And the only hominins we know of living at Bouri at this time is Australopithecus garhi.

When dealing with the “first” occurrence of something in the fossil/archaeological record there is always a great deal of uncertainty because we can never be sure we have actually found the oldest example. Evolutionary anthropologists may find an older Homo habilis tomorrow, or even older examples of the Oldowan may be found that associate it with an early Australopith; we simply cannot know. However this association provides significant evidence of Australopithecus making stone tools and so I have no problem saying that Australopiths most likely made the first stone tools. The current evidence we have supports it and I predict subsequent evidence will continue to justify this claim.

This discovery shows that the Australopiths weren’t quite as primitive as some once believed and raises questions about whether chimps are an effective model for our ancestors. Most importantly, this find serves to blur the distinction between Homo and Australopithecus even more. Stone tools, once thought to be one of the defining attributes of our species, were likely first made by our more ape-like ancestors. Does that make us more ape-like or the Australopiths more human? Regardless this revolutionises our understanding of technological evolution.

de Heinzelin J, Clark JD, White T, Hart W, Renne P, WoldeGabriel G, Beyene Y, & Vrba E (1999). Environment and behavior of 2.5-million-year-old Bouri hominids. Science (New York, N.Y.), 284 (5414), 625-9 PMID: 10213682

*There’s a version of this video without Atteborough. It’s rubbish.

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30 thoughts on “Did Australopithecus make stone tools?”

  1. Ashley Haworth-Roberts says:

    Not on tools as such, but I’ve just emailed the ICR as follows:

    ICR propaganda about alleged museum propaganda and indoctrination.
    “The scientific reality about the prints found in volcanic ash from
    Kenya is simply that people with fully human bare feet walked there
    during the post-Flood Ice Age”. A pack of LIES.

    The new article also refers back to this previous piece of misleading
    claims – in order to bolster its attack on the new museum:

    This was footnote 1 with the earlier article:
    When this Abstract called the Laetoli G-1 footprints ‘modern’ ie human-
    like, it was NOT suggested that they were not – contrary to previous
    understandings – over 3 million years’ old. The fact that a bipedally
    walking hominid living over 3 million years’ ago left human-like
    (rather than ape-like) footprints is NOT ‘out of step with evolutionary
    history’ at all.

    But Ken Ham’s Creation Museum should note that Mr Thomas wrote:
    “Australopiths were very likely able to “walk” on two legs (i.e., they
    were bipedal), but they were probably better-suited for living in
    trees”. Despite another footnote referring to the kind of bipedalism
    employed by Australopiths, Thomas’ comment “the uniquely human gait
    that characterizes the Laetoli tracks” misrepresents the facts ie it
    seeks to prove that a Homo sapien really made the tracks so they must
    be ‘recent’.

    1. Adam Benton says:

      I’m rather sick of claims regarding Laetoli given that it’s all based on their assumption that only humans can have “modern” feet.

  2. Ashley Haworth-Roberts says:

    See also (which links to your blog of 14.8.12 on Laetoli): http://eyeonicr.wordpress.com/2013/01/11/field-trip-to-the-museum/

    1. Adam Benton says:

      I have seen that, I follow EOI

  3. ashley haworth-roberts says:

    As sent to AiG:

    Recent paper in the PNAS.
    http://www.answersingenesis.org/articles/2013/01/19/news-to-note-01192013 (Item 2)

    The Abstract of this PNAS paper states: “Paleoanthropologists have long argued—often contentiously—about the climbing abilities of early hominins and whether a foot adapted to terrestrial bipedalism constrained regular access to trees” and “Our findings challenge the persistent arboreal–terrestrial dichotomy that has informed behavioral reconstructions of fossil hominins”.
    The Abstract does not explicitly refer to Australopithecus afarensis ie the Lucy species, but it casts doubt on whether certain extinct hominins which could walk bipedally were also adapted to a part-time arboreal lifestyle.
    What do Answers in Genesis have to say?
    You refer to this article:
    It discusses Lucy, quotes the paper as saying “Australopithecus afarensis possessed a rigid ankle and an arched, nongrasping foot … these traits are widely interpreted as being functionally incompatible with climbing and thus definitive markers of terrestriality”, but then casts doubt on this in the light of the tree climbing abilities of some modern humans in Africa. Your article quotes these same two sentences.

    AiG finally acknowledge this paper –
    – but still seek to insinuate (alluding to your knuckle walking ape ‘Lucy’ in your Creation Museum) that the species did not have foot arches. Your argument contains no substance. You certainly do not demonstrate why this paper might be ‘wrong’ to conclude “the A. afarensis foot was functionally like that of modern humans” (we are bipedal as you have probably noticed).

    You quote the new paper as concluding “the diverse locomotor repertoire evinced by facultatively arboreal modern humans cautions against using even the most derived (modern human-like) traits in Au. afarensis as unequivocal evidence of negligible arboreality” – this seems to be saying that even though the Lucy species had foot arches, this did not – contrary to previous hypotheses – mean that its foot and ankle were incompatible with tree climbing, and thus rule this out.

    If the new paper mentions knuckle-walking at all, your article fails to say so. I suspect that it does NOT.

    In the light of the new PNAS paper and also the 2011 paper in Science, will you now REMOVE the knuckle-walking ‘Lucy’ from your display and REPLACE it with either a bipedal one or one climbing a tree or swinging from a tree? After all, you are claiming that this fact of likely bipedalism, when the creature was on the ground, does not bother you – because “People aren’t people because they walk upright but because God created them with the genetic information (and the spiritual nature) to be human”.

    1. Adam Benton says:

      AiG likes to use Lucy’s arboreal traits as an argument against her bipedalism (and thus her designation as a member of the hominin lineage). This research clearly shows that bipedalism and arboreal locomotion are not mutually exclusive, rendering that whole line of reasoning suspect (as if it wasn’t already). However, the fact they ever made such an argument is suspiciously absent from this “confession” that a creature can be both bipedal and arboreal. Not knowing better you’d think AiG was never in the wrong, but you can go back and look at earlier articles yourself. Most will feature tree-climbing (along with knuckle walking) prominently in their case that Lucy was just an ape.

  4. Pingback: Are Australopiths our ancestors? | EvoAnth
  5. Trackback: Are Australopiths our ancestors? | EvoAnth
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  7. Trackback: Australopithecus sediba: human by accident? | EvoAnth
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  9. Trackback: A History of the World: Australopithecus & the First Modern Humans | The Pot of Knowledge
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  11. Trackback: Is Lucy a chimp ancestor? | EvoAnth
  12. Pingback: Chimp makes stone tools | EvoAnth
  13. Trackback: Chimp makes stone tools | EvoAnth
  14. martin hughes says:

    The idea that such small brained species can’t make tools is disproved not by studies of modern apes but by the antics of corvids. studies of the crow have shown a remarkable ability to work out how to solve novel problems using implements that must be obtained using other implements. Their second order ability to solve problems in accessing food are way above any modern ape and show that primitive tool use is not impossible with even very small brains.

    1. Adam Benton says:

      However, most people view making stone tools as significantly different from what chimps and other animals do since the “form” of the tool is not apparent in the raw material. A stick can be trimmed to make a termite fishing rod, or frayed to make something to search through leaves with. The final product does not look that different to the starting one. However, a flint nodule bears no real resemblance to a flaker or chopper. So people thought this create a cognitive barrier that would prevent Australopiths from manufacturing stone tools.

      Turns out they were wrong!

      1. savannah says:


  15. Eliza says:


    I was wondering what your thoughts were on why fossils classified in the genus Australopithecus and early hominid fossils have been found in Africa and nowhere else in the world?

    Is it based on environmental theories or any others?


    1. Adam Benton says:

      Our family evolved in Africa, so the question is more “why didn’t Australopithecus leave” rather than “why are they only in Africa?” The answer to that is likely linked to the fact that they had small brains, a limited tool kit and they weren’t as good at walking over long distances as later species. This likely limited how far they were going to migrate and what sort of environments they could live in; trapping them in Africa.

      Of course, new discoveries are continuing to refine out understanding of the Australopiths and the first non-Africans, so never say never.

      1. Eliza says:


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  24. sonu kumari says:

    i am an undergraduate of history studying in new delhi.being new to this subject and its vastness,i wanted to know about the whole process of human evolution.it sucks when the teacher starts by going into details of the species without making sure whether we really understand where that species stood !!!

    1. Adam Benton says:

      Well I wrote a post (link at the end of this comment) about the hominin “grades” which I think would be a nice introduction to the topic (mostly because it reduces the number of things you need to learn from 23+ species to just 6 grades).

      Of course, if you’ve got any suggestions for making these articles more accessible I’d be glad to hear them.

  25. sonu kumari says:

    nd yes one thing more..these articles are just awesome..i like them

  26. Pingback: Our big brains evolved to make tools | EvoAnth
  27. Trackback: Our big brains evolved to make tools | EvoAnth
  28. emi says:

    this website is very helpful for my daughters homework!

    1. Adam Benton says:

      Glad to be of assistance

    1. Adam Benton says:

      I’ve already talked about the trillions of artefacts claim before. It’s bunk. The rest of the claims aren’t much better. The discussion of Homo erectus tools, for example, seems to be trying to cast doubt on that species’ association with the Acheulean. By disputing one site. Which seems like an odd strategy, given the two are linked at dozens of others. The only one I haven’t come across is the claim of Tertiary stone tools. I might have to examine that in a more in-depth article at some point.

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