Researchers Unearth 3-Million-Year-Old Tools

The discoveries push back the date of one of humans’ earliest technological advances.

Oldowan stone tool


An example of an Oldowan stone tool. (Credit: Appio Studios/Shutterstock)

Ancient tools, buried for millions of years in Kenya, may be the oldest example yet of our ancestors’ technological prowess. The tools, recently discvered on the Homa Peninsula in Lake Victoria, are now the earliest known examples of Oldowan technology — stretching its known start date back by as many as 400,000 years.

The Oldowan Toolkit

“[Oldowan] is a real benchmark of our technology,” says paleontologist Rick Potts, the director of the Human Origins Program at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., and a co-author of the new study published in Science.

The “Oldowan toolkit” is a term anthropologists use to describe the distinct technology that lasted for millions of years before Homo sapiens ever walked the Earth. These tools usually involved very controlled rock-flaking.

By hitting one stone against another, ancient hominins chipped off sharp, thin slivers, leaving a sharp-edged stone behind that would have been good for chopping or scraping. The slivers could also have been used as sewing materials and other things.

The technology’s name comes from the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, where archaeologists discovered ancient hominin bones and tools during several digs beginning in the 1910s. Some of these bones date back to about 2.1 million years ago.

Since then, tools that fall into this categorization have been found widely across Africa and even into Europe and East Asia.

Digging in Nyayanga

The Nyayanga excavation site where the stone tools were found is a lush, tropical place with deep gullies. As these gullies erode, extremely old layers of dirt and sediment — and sometimes ancient fossils and tools — are exposed.

Potts, who has been exploring the area since 1985, says “it’s a ripe area to be making major discoveries.”

More recently, he and his study co-authors found that the 330 stone tools they unearthed at Nyayanga date between 2.58 million and 3 million years ago. That’s hundreds of thousands of years older than the previously oldest known set of Oldowan tools, which were found in Ethiopia.

“We are seeing a real sea change in terms of our understanding,” Potts says.

The site has also revealed 1,776 animal fossils, including those of at least three hippos and antelopes. The bones of two of the hippos show signs of butchery marks, including a cut on the ribs and four parallel marks on a shin bone; some of the antelope bones indicate scraping.

A separate analysis the researchers conducted on stone flakes found in the area shows they were likely used for scraping, cutting and pounding animals and plants. “The surprising find is that that ancient technology was used not just for cutting up animals,” Potts says.

It remains unclear, however, whether these ancient tool-users killed the animals themselves before the butchering, or whether humans simply scavenged cadavers.

Whose Tools Are They?

Similarly, the question of who made these tools in the first place isn’t entirely obvious — though there are a few suspects.

Researchers have long assumed tool use to be limited to the Homo genus. The oldest known fossil depicting this is a 2.8-million-year-old jawbone, known as LD 350-1, found in Ethiopia. That timeline lines up pretty well with the range of tools at Nyayanga.

But perhaps even more compelling is the evidence found at Nyayanga itself, in the form of two molars the team has identified as belonging to Paranthropus. This genus is a close relative of the Homo genus, but some researchers have speculated that, due to their powerful jaws, Paranthropus wouldn’t have needed tools to help break down their food.

“It was basically a chewing machine all by itself,” Potts says of theirjaws, though he believes that discussion is ripe to be revisited based on these latest findings.

Finally, a third possible hominin found roughly around this time is Australopithecus. The best known of these, Lucy, died in Ethiopia and dates roughly to 3.2 million years ago, while the most recent Australopithecus specimensdate to about 2.9 million years ago.

Any of these three hominins could have used the stone tools found in Nyayanga. But until more bones are unearthed, it’s difficult to say definitively.

Related Posts

Harry Kane declined David Beckham’s invitation to join Inter Miami because he has been pr@nked by Beckham too many times (video)

Harry Kane has been reassured by Harry Redknapp that trophies will come, while also being nudged in the direction of an MLS pay day at Inter Miami….

David Beckham’s relationship with his father is gradually improving because his father almost had a heart attack from

David Beckham’s new Netflix docuseries gave his fans a sneak peek into his life. Sharing all the intimate details, David and Victoria Beckham even opened up about…

Cruz Beckham, 19, looks very cosy as he steps out with new love interest Brazilian singer Jackie Apostel during a day out in Mayfair

Cruz Beckham enjoyed a day out with Brazilian singer Jackie Apostel in London’s Mayfair on Wednesday following his split from his girlfriend Tana Holding.The 19-year-old son of fashion designer…

Eva Longoria admits to feeling ‘sore the next day’ from dancing so much at BFF Victoria Beckham’s 50th birthday party

Eva Longoria has a reputation for hard work, but the actress and director also likes to party hard too.The former Desperate Housewives star, 49, reveals she boogied all night long…

David Beckham ‘keen to lure Raphael Varane to Inter Miami after defender’s Man United exit’ as he looks to add to squad of superstars including Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez

David Beckham is keen to sign Raphael Varane at Inter Miami this summer after the defender’s Manchester United exit, according to reports.Varane, 31, departed Old Trafford after his contract expired at the…

ITV Loose Women’s Janet Street-Porter ‘creeped’ by The Reckoning as she knew ‘real’ Jimmy Savile

Loose Women presenter Janet Street-Porter shared her views on the BBC’s The Reckoning, which documents the sickening crimes of paedophile Jimmy SavileLoose Women’s Janet Street-Porter admits her skin…