The stone blades found in Kenya date 300,000 years before previously known examples
The creation of sophisticated stone tools was thought to be a uniquely human trait, requiring planning and dexterity not possessed by any other species.
But a new find in Kenya has turned this theory on its head. A toolkit of hammerstones, cores and cutting flakes has been found along the shores of Lake Victoria, dating from around 2.9 million years ago.
The finds are 300,000 years earlier than similar human examples and, crucially, they were uncovered near the fossilised teeth of an extinct early hominin called Paranthropus.
Paranthropus, meaning ‘parallel to human’ walked upright and lived around the same time as our direct ancestors such as Homo habilis and Homo ergaster. But while humans flourished, Paranthropus died out around 1.5 million years ago.
Although it is not proven that Paranthropus created the tools, they were discovered more than 800 miles from the previously known oldest examples unearthed in Ledi-Geraru, Ethiopia – the area where the genus ‘Homo’ first emerged.
“The assumption has long been that only the genus Homo, to which humans belong, was capable of making stone tools,” said Dr Rick Potts, senior author of the study, of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.
“But finding Paranthropus alongside these stone tools opens up a fascinating whodunnit.”
The types of tools discovered are known as Oldowan, after Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania where they were first found by British archaeologists Louis and Mary Leakey in the 1930s.
Oldowan is considered the earliest stone tool industry because it required significant skill, involving a core stone held in one hand, struck with a hammerstone in the other.
“With these tools, you can crush better than an elephant’s molar and cut better than a lion’s canine,” added Dr Potts. “Oldowan technology was like suddenly evolving a brand-new set of teeth, and it opened up a new variety of foods on the African savannah to our ancestors.”
Wear patterns show the tools were used to cut, scrape and pound food.
Antelope bones at the site showed evidence of hominins slicing away flesh with stone flakes, or having been crushed to extract marrow.
Dating techniques showed the items at the site date between 2.58 million and 3 million years old.
Experts said the discovery of Paranthropus teeth alongside these tools raises the question of whether it was that lineage which invented Oldowan technology, or perhaps that multiple lineages were making these tools at roughly the same time.
“This is one of the oldest – if not the oldest – example of Oldowan technology,” said Professor Thomas Plummer of Queen’s College, New York. “This shows the toolkit was more widely distributed at an earlier date than people realised, and that it was used to process a wide variety of plant and animal tissues.
“We don’t know for sure what the adaptive significance was but the variety of uses suggests it was important to these hominins.”
The research was published in the journal Science.
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