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400,000-year-old stone tools show technological adaptations of prehistoric humans

In a recent study, researchers have unearthed the earliest known use of specialized stone tools, marking a significant shift in prehistoric technology and lifestyle.

These findings shed light on how our ancestors adapted to environmental changes and the disappearance of large game, specifically elephants, by developing tools designed for processing smaller and quicker prey like fallow deer.

Prehistoric stone tools evolution

The stone tools, identified as Quina scrapers, were discovered at the Jaljulia site and Qesem Cave.

Characterized by their scalloped working edges, these scrapers were not only instrumental in butchering fallow deer but also in processing their hides.

This technological shift was driven by necessity, as the decline of elephant populations pushed ancient hunters to target smaller animals, necessitating more precise and effective tools.

Cultural shift driven by ecological change

For about a million years, humans relied on simple stone tools to process the hides and meat of large game, predominantly elephants.

These animals were a crucial source of sustenance. However, around 400,000 years ago, a significant change occurred.

“The large game, particularly elephants, had disappeared, prompting humans to hunt smaller animals, especially fallow deer. Butchering a large elephant is vastly different from processing a much smaller and more delicate fallow deer,” explains Vlad Litov from Tel Aviv University.

This shift not only changed the stone tools but also required a more systematic approach to hunting and processing to make up for the smaller size of fallow deer compared to elephants.

The new Quina scrapers, which first appeared on a small scale at Jaljulia around 500,000 years ago and later more extensively at Qesem Cave, offered a sharper, more uniform edge that greatly improved efficiency.

Sacred landscapes and resource management

The study also highlights a fascinating aspect of early human perception and resource management.

“We identified a double connection, both practical and perceptual, between the technological developments and changes in the fauna hunted and consumed by early humans,” Prof. Ran Barkai points out.

Notably, the Quina scrapers were stone tools made using non-local flint procured from the Mountains of Samaria, located about 20km east of the archaeological sites.

Quina-like scraper from Jaljulia. Credit: Tel Aviv University
Quina-like scraper from Jaljulia. Credit: Tel Aviv University

This area was not only a rich source of flint but also the calving area for fallow deer, suggesting a deep-seated connection between the resources used by ancient hunters and the geography of their environment.

The perceived abundance and utility of the Samarian highlands likely elevated their status to something sacred among the prehistoric peoples of Qesem Cave and Jaljulia.

“We believe that the Mountains of Samaria were sacred to the prehistoric people of Qesem Cave and Jaljulia because that’s where the fallow deer came from,” Litov concludes.

Prehistoric stone tools show adaptation

The findings from Jaljulia and Qesem Cave provide a vivid snapshot of how early humans adapted their tool-making techniques to meet the challenges posed by new hunting targets and ecological realities.

The development of Quina scrapers is not just a technological advancement; it represents a profound adaptation to a changing world, showcasing the ingenuity and resilience of our ancient ancestors.

This study serves as a reminder of the complex interplay between human innovation, cultural perceptions, and environmental conditions that has shaped human history from its earliest days.

Significance of this discovery

Prehistoric stone tools are some of the earliest evidence of human technology. These tools, dating back millions of years, demonstrate the ingenuity and adaptability of our ancestors.

Early stone tools, such as those from the Oldowan industry, were simple and used for basic tasks like cutting and scraping.

As time progressed, more complex tools emerged during the Acheulean period, characterized by hand axes and cleavers.

The Middle Paleolithic saw the development of the Levallois technique, where stone flakes were carefully shaped before being removed from a core, leading to more efficient and specialized tools.

The Upper Paleolithic era brought further innovation with the creation of finely crafted blades, burins, and microliths. These tools enabled our ancestors to perform more complex tasks, such as hunting, crafting clothing, and constructing shelters.

Overall, prehistoric stone tools provide crucial insights into the technological advancements, survival strategies, and cognitive evolution of early humans.

The full study was published in the journal Archaeologies.


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