Oldest hand axes found

African discoveries offer glimpse of early tool-making complexity

A patch of soil in East Africa has yielded the oldest known stone hand axes and picks, examples of what researchers call the Acheulian industry.

OLD AND EDGY A stone hand ax (shown from different angles), dating to 1.76 million years ago, comes from the earliest known culture to have made such implements. P.-J. Texier, copyright MPK/WTAP

Acheulian implements unearthed at Kenya’s Kokiselei site date to 1.76 million years ago, slightly older than previous finds (SN: 1/31/09, p. 11), say geologist Christopher Lepre of Rutgers University and his colleagues. Carefully shaped, double-edged hand axes and picks lay among much simpler tools — sharp flakes pounded off stones — at Kokiselei, the scientists report in the Sept. 1 Nature.

These finds underscore suspicions that stone flakes used as chopping devices, early tools known as the Oldowan industry, did not get supplanted by hand-ax making, Lepre says. Instead, the more complex Acheulian devices emerged while Oldowan implements — which first appeared about 2.6 million years ago in the same region — were still popular, although it’s unclear how long the two types of tools were used simultaneously at Kokiselei. Hand axes and other double-edged tools typify the Acheulian industry.

Homo erectus, a possible direct ancestor of modern humans, made Acheulian tools and perhaps Oldowan ones as well at Kokiselei, Lepre’s team suggests. Or, another hominid species might have crafted Oldowan artifacts there.

“If Acheulian tools gave hominids an edge in Africa, then perhaps groups lacking that technology were forced to find resources elsewhere, like Eurasia,” Lepre says.

In line with that proposal, other researchers have unearthed H. erectus fossils at Dmanisi, a West Asian site as old as Kokiselei, along with simple chopping stones but no hand axes. It remains unsettled whether H. erectus, which first appeared around 2 million years ago, evolved in Africa or Asia.

Lepre’s team estimated the age of the Kokiselei tools by taking measurements in and around artifact-bearing soil of ancient reversals in Earth’s magnetic field, combined with previously dated volcanic ash layers sandwiching the finds.

Archaeologists familiar with the new paper say that it moves the origin of Acheulian tools back a bit closer to the evolutionary debut of H. erectus, an interesting but not unexpected development.

Excavations at Israel’s ‘Ubeidiya Formation have recovered 1.5 million-year-old hand axes and picks, presumably made by H. erectus, that resemble those from Kokiselei, remarks Naama Goren-Inbar of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Acheulian sites in Tanzania and India also date to as early as 1.5 million years ago.

Some sets of Oldowan and Acheulian artifacts look much alike, implying that the same hominid species could have produced both tool types, Goren-Inbar says.

Harvard University’s Ofer Bar-Yosef agrees. “Homo erectus could have made all of the stone tools at Kokiselei,” he asserts.

Fossils are needed to confirm that H. erectus made these implements, comments John Shea of Stony Brook University in New York. Simple flakes struck off stones augmented more complex tools throughout the Stone Age, although archaeologists often ignore Oldowan artifacts at modern human sites, Shea argues.

Bruce Bower

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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