A new instrument concludes that a type of bone tool believed to have been invented by Stone Age humans began among hominids that lived hundreds of thousands of years before Homo sapiens evolved.
A set of 52 previously excavated but little-studied animal bones from the Eastuvai Gorge in East Africa includes the world's oldest prickly bone point, an instrument probably made by Homo erectus that was extinct at least 800,000 years ago, researchers say. . Made from a piece of rib from a large animal, the artifact features three curved barbs and a carved tip, the team reports in the November Journal of Human Evolution.
Among Olduvai’s bones, biological anthropologist Michael Pante of Colorado State University in Fort Collins and colleagues identified five other tools from more than 800,000 years ago as probable helicopters, hammering tools, or hammering platforms.
The oldest spiked bone points came from a central African site and were dated to about 90,000 years ago (SN: 29/04/95), and were thought to reflect a tool-making ingenuity unique to Homo sapiens. These implements include rings carved around the base of the tools where wooden shafts were allegedly fixed. Barbed bone tips found in H. sapiens sites were probably used to catch fish and perhaps to hunt large land prey.
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The spiny bone tip of the Olduvai Gorge, which has not been completed, shows no signs of having been attached to a handle or shaft. Pante and his colleagues say it is unclear how H. erectus used the tool.
This discovery and four of the other bony tools date back at least 800,000 years, based on their original positions below the Olduvai sediment that records a known inversion of the Earth's magnetic field about 781,000 years ago. Other bone artifacts date from about 1.7 million years ago, researchers say.
“The Olduvai point involves H. erectus as the inventor of the spiny bone tip technology,” says Pante, because the stone tools previously excavated in the same sediment of the Olduvai Gorge resemble those found in other African sites with H fossils. erectus.
The bone tools described in the new study come from a collection of animal bones excavated in the late 1960s and early 1970s by Mary Leakey before being stored among thousands of fossils and artifacts at an Olduvai facility. Pante discovered the set of 52 bones in 2007 while researching Olduvai's throat.
Still, archaeologist Christian Tryon of the University of Connecticut at Storrs, who did not participate in the new study, questions whether the Olduvai bone specimen can definitely be classified as a barbed bone spot because it was not finished. But Pante’s report shows that Olduvai hominids, whether H. erectus or some other prehuman population, carefully selected bones and stones for toolmaking, Tryon says. "They were artisans or expert women."
New York University archaeologist Justin Pargeter agrees. Although it is unclear whether the Olduvai artifact was a pointed bone tool comparable to those made later by H. sapiens, according to him, the existence of any manufacture of bone tools 800,000 years ago shows that this practice is much older than was normally assumed. .
Along with the manufacture of bone tools, a number of critical advances in hominid behavior occurred before the appearance of H. sapiens about 300,000 years ago. These developments include the invention of stone tools (SN: 03/03/19), the controlled use of fire (SN: 02/04/12) and the ability to survive in new environments (SN: 29/11/18). Exploiting the bone to make tools such as barbed wire would help ancient Homo groups migrate to unknown regions where the locations of stone sources were unknown, Pante suspects.
Jewelry making, rock painting, and other symbolic acts may represent “modern human behaviors” that eluded earlier hominids such as H. erectus, Pante says. But some researchers suspect that the now extinct Homo species also created symbolic elements (SN: 12/3/14).