Ancient tools

Scientists in Kenya Believe They’ve Just Found the Oldest Tools Ever Discovered, headline said.

A team of scientists working in Kenya says it has unearthed the oldest tools ever discovered, dating back 3.3 million years ago. The stone flake tools are 700,000 years older than the earliest known stone tools, predating modern humans by 500,000 years and “suggesting that our ancestors were crafting tools several hundred thousand years before our genus Homo arrived on the scene,” according to Science magazine.

The thing is, though, that there might not be a link from these incredibly ancient tools to me typing on a computer, since these are 700K years older than the earliest tool use we see in our predecessors:

The gap between these tools and the previous oldest known is so long — 700,000 years — suggests that whomever made these newly discovered tools could have died with the knowledge, and stone tools were “reinvented” again hundreds of thousands of years later.

These tools apparently belong to another species of hominids that went extinct (there were dozens of hominid variations that didn’t make it), and one of our own predecessors had to rediscover tool use half a million years later and passed it on, eventually, to us. These tools–rocks flaked into clearly shaped cutters and scrapers, and the rocks used to flake them into those shapes–are physical evidence of a culture. It was a primitive culture, to be sure, but one more sophisticated than even the most clever band of chimpanzees today, a culture that could turn carefully selected rocks into specifically shaped tools, and then could pass that knowledge onto the next generation. This was learned behavior, not instinctive. The site was essentially a work shop, a factory, a place where over three million years ago hundreds (or perhaps thousands) of stone tools were created. The small area was littered with them, and so far they’ve collected more than 130 of these artifacts. We don’t know if everyone would pitch in and make their own implements, or if there was one or two individuals who specialized in tool manufacture. We don’t know how long this went on for, or just how widespread this technology was. We don’t know anything, except the age of these tools–they can be dated at 3.3 million years, using paleo magnetic techniques–and how they were created, by flaking (or “knapping”), smashing a stone against another to create specific shapes, the ultimate in early paleolithic technology. But we have no way of knowing who it was that made them. Without a pre-human skull, an Australopithecine, maybe, someone like “Lucy”, we can only guess. Hopefully some day the right bones will be found in the right place.

Until then, though, these worked stone implements will just haunt us, a mystery, a race of apes that could have been us, but didn’t make it. Eventually at some point around three million years ago there was just one survivor, scraping at bones with one of these tools, and then he died–by disease or age or a leopard–and a future civilization died with him. It’s sad to think about, as the finality of extinction always is. All that evolution coming to an end. Of course had they not died out, I would not be typing this, and you would not be reading this. We would not be here. We are descended from that next tool making culture half a million years later. That is where we trace our genetic and cultural roots from. The failure of those three million year old tool makers was an opening for the line of australopithecines that eventually became homo habilis and then homo ergaster and then homo erectus and finally us, the billions and billions of homo sapiens, in all our tool making glory. But we will probably share their fate, eventually, with one last homo sapien taking the very last human genome with him, and this glorious little human experiment will be done.

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