Scientists have recently discovered the oldest stone tools; a whopping 3.3 million years old. That’s half a million years older than the human family (which is a mere 2.8 mya). These tools come from Lake Turkana, in Northern Kenya, home to a dozen other important discoveries about human evolution.
These aren’t the first “oldest stone tools” (or even the first “oldest stone tools” that are 3.3 million years old). However, previous examples were discovered on the surface making the associated dates a bit sketchy. These are the first tools found in the actual ground; so we can reliably figure out how old they were.
Answer: they’re the oldest stone tools ever. What does this mean? Stay tuned for a 2-part series in which EvoAnth looks at the tools (this post) and their creators (part 2).
Inventing the stone age
Making stone tools represented a key step in our intellectual evolution. Sure, chimps can use stones as tools; but only our ancestors managed to figure out how to create a new tool from stone. It’s that creative component that’s key.
However, what’s notable about these “new” old tools is that they lack this creative aspect.
The previous oldest stone tools – known as the Oldowan and dating to 2.6 million years ago – were stone flakes broken off the main rock itself. These flakes weren’t particularly durable, but were exceptionally sharp and could cut a huge range of materials. Most importantly though, these flakes were “new” objects; not naturally occurring in the initial slab of rock.
Yet these new old tools – called the Lomekwian – aren’t flakes; or anything else “new”. Instead, these appear to have been rocks picked up and smashed against an object, such as a nut, to break it. The evidence for this comes from the relative lack of flakes found; along with the fact that many of the rocks show evidence of damage unassociated with the creation of flakes.
This is the same, boring technique chimps use.
In fact, the similarities to chimps are even more apparent than that. They tend to smack their rocks against anvils; crushing the
human skull nut between them. And some of the Lomekwian tools appear to have been used as anvils; showing the telltale crushing marks associated with having poor unfortunate humans objects smashed on it.
So these tools are nothing new?
Ok, I was being a bit unfair by dismissing the Lomekwian as containing no new tools. 35 flakes were discovered at the site; very similar to the “new” flakes made in the Oldowan. The similarities in size, shape and manufacture of these flakes implies that they were deliberate.
So the makers of the Lomekwian were actually kind of creative.
Yet most of the tools aren’t flakes. And those few flakes which were created aren’t made that well. Part of this may stem from the size of the rocks chosen. Whilst they would have made good hammers for anvils, they’re a bit too large to have fine control over when making flakes.
In other words, the Lomekwian looks like a “transitional fossil”. Hominins were making chimp-y tools when they discovered how to make flakes. Although a bit rubbish to begin with, these flakes would gradually be improved and refined until they became what we would call the Oldowan.
And we left the chimps in the technological dust and never looked back.
Boyd and Silk, 2012. How Humans Evolved
Harmand, S., Lewis, J. E., Feibel, C. S., Lepre, C. J., Prat, S., Lenoble, A., … & Roche, H. (2015). 3.3-million-year-old stone tools from Lomekwi 3, West Turkana, Kenya. Nature, 521(7552), 310-315.