Ancient stone tool technologies may be older than we once thought

25 Mar 2021

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A new study suggests that Oldowan and Acheulean stone tool technologies are likely to be tens of thousands of years older than previously thought.

Oldowan and Acheulean are the two oldest-known stone tool industries, believed to date as far back as 2.5m years ago. These mark a major milestone in human evolutionary history, with stone tool technologies that allowed our early ancestors to access new food types and increased the ease of producing wooden tools and processing animal carcasses.

However, a new study has found that these stone tool technologies are likely to be tens of thousands of years older than once thought.

The findings, published in the Journal of Human Evolution, provide a new chronological foundation, widening the time frame of the associated evolution of human technological capabilities.

Researchers from the University of Kent were led by Dr Alastair Key and Dr David Roberts, along with Dr Ivan Jaric from the Biology Centre of the Czech Academy of Sciences. The team used statistical modelling techniques that have only recently been introduced to archaeological science.

The models estimated that Oldowan stone tools originated between 2.617m and 2.644m years ago, which is between 36,000 and 63,000 years earlier than current evidence. Meanwhile, the Acheulean’s origin was pushed back further by at least 55,000 years to between 1.815m and 1.823m years ago.

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“Our research provides the best possible estimates for understanding when hominins first produced these stone tool types,” said Key, lead author of the study.

“This is important for multiple reasons, but for me at least, it is most exciting because it highlights that there are likely to be substantial portions of the artifact record waiting to be discovered.”

Roberts, who co-authored the study, said the modelling technique was originally created to date extinctions. “It has proved to be a reliable method of inferring the timing of species extinction and is based on the timings of last sightings, and so to apply it to the first sightings of archaeological artifacts was another exciting breakthrough,” he said.

“It is our hope that the technique will be used more widely within archaeology.”

While it is assumed that older stone tool sites exist and have yet to be discovered, this study gives an indication of just how old these undiscovered sites may be.

Jenny Darmody is the deputy editor of Silicon Republic

editorial@siliconrepublic.com