Exploring the emergence of technology in our direct ancestors

Until very recently, archaeological research has focused exclusively on humans and our immediate ancestors – the hominins. This focus is natural, because we have an inherent curiosity about our own origins. But it also has been a necessity, because we did not expect or know how to find a record of behaviour in other species, except through studying fossil bones.

Our earliest record of tool use currently comes from 3.4 million years ago in modern Ethiopia, where bones marked by stone tools are assumed to be the result of hominin activity. The earliest actual stone tools are from around 3.3 million years ago, in Kenya. It is currently thought that the human and chimpanzee-bonobo lineages split from each other at least 6 million years ago, which means that there may be potentially millions of years of missing tool use evidence since that split, or human stone tool use may have originated long after we split from chimpanzees. One of the aims of the Primate Archaeology project is to use evidence from modern primates to help investigate these possibilities.

The PRIMARCH project conducts field research into hominin tool use in the Pliocene and Pleistocene sediments at the important locality of Koobi Fora, Kenya. Research at this site is directed by Prof. Jack Harris and Dr David Braun. We conduct field surveys for stone tools, especially pounding tools, and analysis of the patterns of damage caused to these stones by their use.

Key references:

Braun, D., Harris, J. W. K., Levin, N., McCoy, J., Herries, A. I. R., Bamford, M., Bishop, L., Richmond, B. G., Kibunjia, M., 2010. Early hominin diet included diverse terrestrial and aquatic animals 1.95 Myr ago in East Turkana, Kenya. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA 107, 10002-10007.

Braun, D., Rogers, M., Harris, J. W. K., Walker, S., 2010. Quantifying variation in landscape-level behviors: the Oldowan from Koobi Fora. In: Lycett, S., Chauhan, P. (Eds), New Perspectives on Old Stones. Springer, New York, pp. 176-182.

Harmand S., Lewis J.E., Feibel C.S., Lepre C.J., Prat S., Lenoble A., Boës X., Quinn R.L., Brenet M., Arroyo A., 2015. 3.3-million-year-old stone tools from Lomekwi 3, West Turkana, Kenya. Nature 521, 310-315.

Harris, J. W. K., Capaldo, S., 1993. The earliest stone tools: their implications for an understanding of the activities and behaviour of late Pliocene hominids. In: Berthelet, A., Chavaillon, J. (Eds), The Use of Tools by Humans and Non-human Primates. Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp. 196-220.

McPherron, S., Alemseged Z., Marean C., Wynn J., Reed D., et al. 2010. Evidence for stone-tool-assisted consumption of animal tissues before 3.39 million years ago at Dikika, Ethiopia. Nature 466: 857-860.

Panger, M., Brooks, A., Richmond, B., Wood, B., 2002. Older Than the Oldowan? Rethinking the emergence of hominin tool use. Evolutionary Anthropology 11, 235-245.

Stout, D., Semaw, S., Rogers, M., Cauche, D., 2010. Technological variation in the earliest Oldowan from Gona, Afar, Ethiopia. Journal of Human Evolution 58, 474-491.

Toth, N., Schick, K., 2009. The Oldowan: the tool making of early hominins and chimpanzees compared. Annual Review of Anthropology 38, 289-305.

Copyright @ 2015 Primate Archaeology, All Rights Reserved