Monday, 20 May, 2019

New Evidence Points to Sophisticated Tools, Distant Trading for Early Humans

New Evidence Points to Sophisticated Tools, Distant Trading for Early Humans New Evidence Points to Sophisticated Tools, Distant Trading for Early Humans
Sandra Phillips | 17 March, 2018, 20:36

An global team of researchers found that 320,000 years ago, humans already developed impressive social structures and technological innovations such as using color pigments and manufacturing more sophisticated tools.

The research points to the Middle Stone Age possibly beginning several tens and thousands of years earlier than what was once believed. Meanwhile, the hand axes used to chop the carcasses might have been used for hundreds of thousands of years, from 1.2 million years to 500,000 years ago, before humans started crafting items mostly made out of obsidian, tools that were lighter, flatter, and more useful than the stone axes before them.

For hundreds of the thousands of years, people living there made and used large stone-cutting tools called handaxes.

An anthropology professor from the George Washington University and a team of worldwide collaborators, including scientists from the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, have discovered that early humans in East Africa used coloring materials and obtained a range of raw materials from distant sources- activities which imply the existence of social networks-about 320,000 years ago, much earlier than previously thought. The sophisticated tools (right) were carefully crafted and more specialized than the large, all-purpose handaxes (left).

But perhaps we haven't been giving humanity enough credit.

Dr Potts led excavations in southern Kenya at a site known as the Olorgesailie Basin for more than three decades.

The new discoveries indicate that these behaviors emerged during a period of tremendous environmental variability in the region.

Earthquakes remodelled the landscape and the climate fluctuated between wet and dry conditions.

Dr Potts said: "What we are seeing is a complex set of developments that may represent new ways of surviving in an unpredictable environment".

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Hoping to understand what might have driven such fundamental changes in human behaviour, the research team integrated data from a variety of sources to assess and reconstruct the ancient environment in which the users of these artefacts lived.

He said environmental fluctuations would have presented significant challenges to inhabitants of the Olorgesailie Basin.

The team also saw evidence of dramatic range shifts, with some animals - such as the springbok, an antelope known today only from southern Africa - appearing in the basin. Geological, geochemical, and biological evidence indicates to a long period of climate instability around 360,000 years ago - a time when the area was also ravaged by earthquakes. The tools were dated by isotopes - which placed their construction between 320,000 and 305,000 years ago.

While the handaxes of the earlier era were manufactured using local stones, the Smithsonian team found small stone points made of obsidian.

The authors also found larger, unshaped pieces of the sharp-edged volcanic stone at Olorgesailie, which has no obsidian source of its own.

Experts believe natives of the region must have sourced this from groups found outside of the area, spanning a distance of up to 55 miles (90 km) away in every direction.

"The choice of importing the ochre from a distance rather than using a more common local material which accomplishes the same goal argues that having a red face or hair or clothing or weapons also carried a symbolic message of some sort", said paleoanthropologist Alison Brooks of George Washington University and the museum's Human Origins Program.

"We see a smaller technology, a more diverse series of stone tools", said Rick Potts, director of the Smithsonian Museum of National History's Human Origins program, who led one of the recently published studies. Long-distance stone transport and pigment use in the earliest Middle Stone Age.

Richard Potts et al.

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