During the annual meeting of the Paleoanthropology Society in San Francisco California, archaeologist Sonia Harmand of Stony Brook University in New York, portrayed the discovery of the oldest tools made by human ancestors—stone flakes dated to 3.3 million years ago. That’s 700,000 years older than the oldest-known tools to date. The discovery made at the site of Lomekwi 3, just west of Lake Turkana in Kenya, about 1000 kilometers from Olduvai Gorge.
Lake Turkana. Image: wikipedia.org
In 2011, Harmand’s team was seeking the site where a controversial human relative called Kenyanthropus platyops had been discovered in 1998. They took a wrong turn and stumbled upon another part of the area, called Lomekwi, near where Kenyanthropus had been found. The researchers spotted what Harmand called unmistakable stone tools on the surface of the sandy landscape and immediately launched a small excavation.
Ethiopian stone tools. Image: PNAS
More tools were discovered under the ground, including so-called cores from which human ancestors struck off sharp flakes; the team was even able to fit one of the flakes back to its original core, showing that a hominin had crafted and then discarded both core and flake in this spot. The researchers returned for more digging the following year and have now uncovered nearly 20 well-preserved flakes, cores, and anvils apparently used to hold the cores as the flakes were struck off, all sealed in sediments that provided a secure context for dating. An additional 130 pieces have also been found on the surface.
“The artifacts were clearly knapped [created by intentional flaking] and not the result of accidental fracture of rocks,” Harmand told the meeting. Analysis of the tools showed that they had been rotated as flakes were struck off, which is also how Oldowan tools were crafted. The Lomekwi tools were somewhat larger than the average Oldowan artifacts, however. Dating of the sediments using paleomagnetic techniques—which track reversals in Earth’s magnetic field over time and have been used on many hominin finds from the well-studied Lake Turkana area—put them at about 3.3 million years old.
Although very recent research has now pushed back the origins of the genus Homo to as early as 2.8 million years ago, the tools are too old to have been made by the first fully fledged humans, Harmand said in her talk. The most likely explanation, she concluded, was that the artifacts were made either by australopithecines similar to Lucy or byKenyanthropus. Either way, toolmaking apparently began before the birth of our genus. Harmand and her colleagues propose to call the new tools the Lomekwian technology, she said, because they are too old and too distinct from Oldowan implements to represent the same technology.