clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

HUMANS LEARNED TOOLMAKING IN AFRICA OVER 80,000 YEARS AGO

Stone Age humans first learned to make tools in Africa more than 80,000 years ago and not, as widely believed, in Europe many thousands of years later, researchers reported this week.

Alison S. Brooks, a George Washington University archaeologist, said that bone tools with barbed points and blades dug up from an ancient lakeshore in Zaire predate similar tools found in Europe from some 60,000 years later. This proves that human toolmaking began in Africa, not in Europe, she said."The old idea that there were humans in Africa who looked modern, but who didn't behave like modern people until they got to Europe . . . is not correct," said Brooks.

She added: "The finding shows that early humans in Africa invented sophisticated toolmaking long before their European counterparts. Barbed points like these appeared in Europe only 14,000 years ago."

Brooks and her husband, John E. Yellen of the National Science Foundation, along with researchers from eight other institutions, are co-authors of studies on the tools published today in the academic journal Science.

The old tools were found during years of excavation at seven sites in Semliki River valley on the border between Zaire and Uganda in central Africa.

Included are double-pointed blades with carved barbs and single points with ridges that could have been used for attachment to spear shafts. All of the bone tools probably were carved from the ribs of large mammals that lived in the area, the scientists said.

Yellen said the researchers were so concerned about the accuracy of dating the discoveries that the tools were subjected to four different age-dating techniques. The age estimates ranged from just under 80,000 to more than 170,000 years and Brooks, for convenience, referred to the ages as "more than 80,000 years."

Steve Kuhn, an anthropologist at the University of Arizona and a specialist in ancient tools, said the African implements came from "much earlier than any of us expected. It makes us rethink some ideas" about how early technology developed.

"It upsets a lot of simple models about technology progress," Kuhn said.

However, he said the fossil record has so many gaps that it is not clear whether the tools developed in Europe descended from the design ideas of the early African craftsmen or the Europeans invented them independently.

Fragments of skeletons from what are considered to be anatomically modern humans, called Homo sapien sapien, have been found in several places in Africa and dated at more than 100,000 years old. Younger evidence of modern humans has been found in Europe and Asia. There also has been evidence of more primitive humanlike creatures found on the three continents.

It is widely accepted now that modern humans physically developed first in Africa. What is uncertain is how and when these presumed ancestors of all humans migrated to the rest of the world.

"We are a long way from being able to answer about the timing for the movement out of Africa," said Brooks.

Science is the journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.