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Stone Tools From North Africa May Have Just Shifted The Human Origin Story … Again

East Africa is famously the birthplace of humanity and the location where our ancient hominine ancestors first invented sophisticated stone…

East Africa is famously the birthplace of humanity and the location where our ancient hominine ancestors first invented sophisticated stone tools.

This technology, dating back to 2.6 million years ago, is thought to have spread around Africa and the rest of the Old World later on.

But new research, published in Science has uncovered an archaeological site in Algeria containing similar tools that may be as old as 2.44 million years.

The team, led by the archeologist Mohamed Sahnouni, excavated stone tools at the site Ain Boucherit that they estimate are between 1.92 million and 2.44 million years old.

This suggests that human ancestors spread to the region much earlier than previously thought or that the stone tool technology was simultaneously invented by earlier hominin species living outside east Africa.

The artifacts belong to the “Oldowan” &#821

1; the oldest known stone tool industry. Rounded river cobbles, used as hammer stones, were used to flake other cobbles, turning them into simple cores. The flakes were then transformed into scrapers and various knives by resharpening their edges.

Essentially this was a tool kit for processing animal tissue, such as marrow, bone and brain tissue, but also plant material. or Homo habilis .

The stone tools are very similar to those of early Oldowan sites in. East Africa. Bones at the site have even cut marks, where a stone tool has been poured into the bone during butchery.

 oldowan tools body image Some oldowan tools found at the site, including cores and flakes (Shanouni et al., Science 2018)

But we have only ever found early Oldowan tools in the east African rift valley before, more than 4,000 miles (2,500 miles) away. We have always assumed that it started there some 2.6 million years ago, so we should not find it so far from its original home at that age unless we have missed something.

Many archaeologists do indeed suspect there is an unseen ghost somewhere in the machine.

There have been discoveries of early hominity sites in the south, in Chad, that suggests that some of our earliest ancestors lived well beyond East Africa.

Oldowan-like sites have also been found outside of Africa, in Georgia, beginning at 1.8 million years ago – which seems surprisingly early.

Game Changer

The new discovery is telling us that our focus on East Africa as the birthplace of early humans is too narrow – we should be doing what Sahnouni and others have done all along and look elsewhere.

The same team recently published findings about another Oldowan site in Algeria that’s about 1.75 million years old, but to find early Oldowan tools well over half a million years earlier is a bit of a game changer.

It all hinges on how reliable that 2.44 million-year-old date really is. Dating specialists will be scrutinizing the details very carefully. According to the paper, four different techniques were used.

Palaeomagnetic dating measures the direction and intensity of the Earth’s magnetic field in sediments – this is locked into rocks when they form, helping to tell us how old they are.

The team found that the upper level was mapped to a short period of normal polarity taking place between 1.77 million and 1.94 million years ago.

The lower level’s sediments fitted into a long period of reversed direction at between 1.94 million and 2.58 million years ago.

To get more precise dates, the team turned to a dating technique called electron spin resonance dating, which measures radioactive decay in quartz sand grains.

However, they used a less common version of the technique that was operating close to its upper limit of reliability at this age range. The measurement delivered an age of 1.92 million years old, younger than suggested by paleomagnetism.

There are some concerns about how appropriate this last method is but the team has been honest about that. De har også sammenlignet de datoer med udløbstider af dyr til stede på stedet, som foreslog datoen ikke var umulig.

For at få en bedre idé om den maksimale alder af værktøjerne, brugte de en metode til estimering af satser for sedimentering – basically how long the different layers at the site took to build up.

You have to throw in some fancy statistical work though, and map it onto the palaeomagnetic results. Extrapolating backwards in time, the team calculated that the actual age of the lower level is 2.44 million years old.

I suspect dating specialists will be looking at this carefully.

Mystery hominin?

Now to our ghost. De eldste verktøyene som er funnet utenfor Afrika er de som fra Georgia dateret til 1,8 millioner år siden. There is a small Oldowan-like site in Pakistan from around the same time and more core-and-flake sites in east China at 1.66 million years ago.

If the Georgian site represents the first move out of Africa, then these early African migrants got to Pakistan and China extremely quickly.

 Stone tool cut marks on animal skeleton. (I. Caceres) Stone tool cut marks on animal skeleton.

In Georgia, the tools may have been made by early Homo erectus which dates back to about 1.8 million years ago.

If there is a Homo erectus must have been the species that spread the tool technology around the world – and much quicker specimen from China dated to 1.6 million years old, it’s easy to assume that than we had thought.

But we can not be sure of that. What if our ghost was a former hominin species from Africa predating Homo erectus – such as Homo habilis ?

Perhaps the Oldowan actually began earlier than 2.6 million years ago, and was already widespread throughout Africa by 2.4 million years ago.

Maybe our mysterious hominin began to migrate out of Africa before 1.8 million years ago, and carried its core and flake industry eastwards.

That would certainly give it more time to cover those huge distances. Perhaps Homo erectus only migrated eastwards out of Africa later, following in the footsteps of an earlier traveler that we know nothing about.

So that’s a lot of maybes, but then nobody expected there to be Oldowan tools in Georgia when they were first found.

The Georgian archaeologists went back, did more work and proved their case.

It caused a lot of controversy, but now most archaeologists are comfortable with the finding. I do not doubt Sahnouni and his team will be doing the same.

John McNabb, Senior Lecturer in Palaeolithic Archeology, University of Southampton.

This article is republished from The Conversation. under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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