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The oldest stone tools on record – dating back 3.3 million years – have been discovered in Kenya, scientists announced Wednesday. “This marks a new beginning to the known archaeological record,” according to the study, which appeared in the British journal Nature. The discovery of the tools, some 149 of them near Lake Turkana in northern Kenya, pushes the known date of such implements back by 700,000 years. They were created by “proto-humans,” long before the advent of modern humans, and are by far the oldest such artifacts yet discovered anywhere on Earth, according to the study.
The tools “shed light on an unexpected and previously unknown period of hominin behavior and can tell us a lot about cognitive development in our ancestors,” said study lead author Sonia Harmand, of Stony Brook University and the Universite Paris Quest Nanterre.
“Hominins” are classified as a group of species that include modern humans (Homo sapiens) and our closest evolutionary ancestors. Homo developed some 2.8 million years ago, while Homo sapiens appeared 200,000 years ago.
The discovery is the first evidence that whomever created the tools may have had the thinking abilities needed to figure out how to make sharp-edged implements. The study authors also say the tool makers had a strong grip and good motor control, providing insight into the thinking capabilities of these early human relatives. The shapes and markings on the tools show they were used to pound items or produce sharp flakes. The arm and hand motions required for these actions were probably more similar to those used by chimpanzees and other primates to crack nuts.
“This is a momentous and well-researched discovery,” said paleoanthropologist Bernard Wood of George Washington University, who was not involved in the study. “I have seen some of these artifacts in the flesh, and I am convinced they were fashioned deliberately.”
How do they know the age of the tools? A layer of volcanic ash below the tool site was one clue pointing to their age. The ash was dated to about 3.3 million years ago, based on the ratio of argon isotopes in the material, according to geologist and study co-author Chris Lepre of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and Rutgers University.