Rock-solid choices of first toolmakers

From Montreal, at a joint meeting of the Paleoanthropology Society and the Society for American Archaeology

At the dawn of stone-tool production around 2.6 million years ago, our human ancestors already showed considerable insight into the task at hand. They worked mainly with rocks that they had carefully picked as suitable for being fashioned into sharp-edged implements, says Dietrich Stout of Indiana University in Bloomington.

Stout and his Indiana colleague Sileshi Semaw focused on 894 stone artifacts that have been found at six ancient sites in an Ethiopian region called Gona. These are the oldest stone tools known, dating to between 2.6 million and 2.5 million years ago.

Most of the tools were made from trachyte, a rock with a much smoother surface than that of other rock types available at Gona. On close examination, Gona finds exhibited a suite of characteristics conducive to toolmaking, including smooth and often polished surfaces and an internal composition that resisted cracking as one stone was pounded into another to shape it.

“[Stone Age] toolmakers were highly selective in choosing their raw materials, even at the earliest stages of tool use,” Stout says.

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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