Researchers working in Kenya think that they have found the oldest stone tools discovered to date, 700,000 years older than the previous record. The tools date back 3.3 million years to roughly the time of ‘Lucy’ the Australopithecus discovered in Ethiopia in 1974. If the results are accurate it would show that tool making doesn’t just predate modern man, but predates the genus Homo.
The oldest tools found, prior to this, were discovered at Gona in Ethiopia. Those tools, of the Oldowan variety, were dated to 2.6 million years ago.
In 2010, researchers reported cut marks on 3.4 million year old animal bones. The researchers suggested that they were used by tool-using Australopithecus and immediately set off considerable controversy. Others argued that the marks could have been made by other means and without the actual tools used to make the marks, the find has remained controversial.
Now, it appears the tools have been found. At an annual meeting of Paleoanthropology Society, Sonia Harmand of Stony Brook University in New York described the the numerous tools found at the site Lomekwi 3, near Lake Turkana in Kenya.
The team, while searching for a controversial human ancestor called Kenyanthropus, took a wrong turn. According to Science Magazine the team spotted “unmistakable stone tools on the surface of the sandy landscape and immediately launched a small excavation.”
The team quickly found more tools including the cores from which the flakes were struck and reported that they were able to fit one of the flakes back into its original core. This indicates that the maker carved out the flake and then immediately discarded it along with the core.
To date 20 flakes, cores and anvils have been unearthed at the site. All of these were found in sediments which could be dated. An additional 130 artifacts were found on the surface and cannot be individually dated.
“The artifacts were clearly knapped [created by intentional flaking] and not the result of accidental fracture of rocks,” said Harmand at the meeting.
Although larger than standard Oldowan artifacts, the Lomekwi tools appear to have been fashioned using similar methods.
The sediments were dated using paleomagnetic techniques, which rely on changes in the Earth’s magnetic field over time. Those same methods have been used to study a wide variety of artifacts in the Lake Turkana area.
The genus Homo is thought to have appeared 2.8 million years ago. The artifacts, which date to 3.3 million years ago, are too old to have been created by early humans. This, according to Harman, indicates that they were either made by australopithecines or Kenyanthropus. In either case it indicates that tool making has been part of our hominid make-up for much longer than anyone thought, longer than we have been human.
The researchers, claiming that the tools are too old and too different to be Oldowan, have labelled the tools Lomekwian technology.
The finding, at the very least, appears to lay to rest the 2010 animal bone controversy.
“Harmand’s discovery gives us the smoking gun,” said Zeresenay Alemseged, a paleoanthropologist with the California Academy of Sciences who was involved with the earlier work.