Store Banner Desktop

Store Banner Mobile

The removal of meat from a bone using a replica of the Revadim tiny flake tool. Source: Professor Ran Barkai, Tel Aviv University

Acheulian Culture Had ‘Surgical’ Skills in Butchery

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

The Acheulian culture endured in the Levant for over a million years during the Lower Paleolithic period (1.4 million to 400,000 years ago). Its use of bifaces or large cutting tools like hand axes and cleavers is considered a hallmark of its sophistication -- or, some researchers would argue, the lack thereof.

A new Tel Aviv University-led study published in Nature's Scientific Reports on September 10 reveals that these early humans also crafted tiny flint tools out of recycled larger discarded instruments as part of a comprehensive animal-butchery tool kit. This suggests that the Acheulians were, in fact, far more sophisticated than previously believed.

The Tiny Flint Flake Tools

The international team of researchers, led by Dr. Flavia Venditti and Professor Ran Barkai of TAU's Department of Archeology and Ancient Near Eastern Cultures together with colleagues from La Sapienza Rome University, discovered tiny flint flakes in the Lower Paleolithic Late Acheulian site of Revadim.

Revadim – the site of the discovery of the Lower Paleolithic tools. (Scientific Reports)

In the past, this site yielded various stone assemblages, including dozens of hand axes, as well as animal remains, primarily of elephants. The new research is based on expert analyses of 283 tiny flint items some 300,000-500,000 years old.

"The analysis included microscopic observations of use-wear as well as organic and inorganic residues," explains Dr. Venditti. "We were looking for signs of edge damage, striations, polishes, and organic residue trapped in depressions in the tiny flint flakes, to understand what the flakes were used for”.

The Tools Were Made From ‘Recycled’ Materials

According to the microscopic use-signs and organic residue found on the tiny flakes, these flint specimens were not merely industrial waste left over from the production of larger tools. In fact, they were the deliberate product of recycled discarded artifacts and intended for a specific use.

A group of small flake tools produced by lithic recycling. (Scientific Reports)

"For decades, archaeologists did not pay attention to these tiny flakes. Emphasis was instead focused on large, elaborate hand axes and other impressive stone tools," says Professor Barkai. "But we now have solid evidence proving the vital use of the two-inch flakes”.

Different types of alterations observed on the recycled flake tools. (Scientific Reports)

"We show here for the first time that the tiny tools were deliberately manufactured from recycled material and played an important role in the ancient human toolbox and survival strategies," adds Dr. Venditti.

The Use of the Tiny Tools in Butchery

The Acheulian culture, which was also prevalent in Africa, Europe, and Asia at the time, was characterized by the standard production of large impressive stone tools, mainly used in the butchery of the enormous animals that walked the earth.

"Ancient humans depended on the meat and especially the fat of animals for their existence and well-being. So, the quality butchery of the large animals and the extraction of every possible calorie was of paramount importance to them," Professor Barkai says.

According to the study, which was conducted over the course of three years, the tiny tools were used at stages of the butchery process that required precise cutting, such as tendon separation, meat carving and periosteum removal for marrow acquisition. Some 107 tiny flakes showed signs of processing animal carcasses.

Eleven flakes also revealed organic and inorganic residues, mainly of bone but also of soft tissue. Experiments carried out with reproductions of the tools showed that the small flakes must have been used for delicate tasks, performed in tandem with larger butchery tools.

"We have an image of ancient humans as bulky, large creatures who attacked elephants with large stone weapons. They then gobbled as much of these elephants as they could and went to sleep," Professor Barkai says. "In fact, they were much more sophisticated than that. The tiny flakes acted as surgical tools created and used for delicate cutting of exact parts of elephants' as well as other animals' carcasses to extract every possible calorie.

Skin cutting using a replica of the Revadim tiny flake tool. (Professor Ran Barkai, Tel Aviv University)

"Nothing was wasted. Discarded stone tools were recycled to produce new tiny cutting implements. This reflects a refined, accurate, thoughtful, and environmentally conscious culture. This ecological awareness allowed ancient humans to thrive for thousands of years."

Top image: The removal of meat from a bone using a replica of the Revadim tiny flake tool. Source: Professor Ran Barkai, Tel Aviv University

The article, originally titled ‘Early humans used tiny, flint 'surgical' tools to butcher elephants’ was first published on Science Daily.

Source: American Friends of Tel Aviv University. "Early humans used tiny, flint 'surgical' tools to butcher elephants." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 11 September 2019.


Venditti, F., Cristiani, E., Nunziante-Cesaro, S., Agam, A., Lemorini, C., and Barkai, R. 2019. Animal residues found on tiny Lower Paleolithic tools reveal their use in butchery. Scientific Reports. [Online] Available at:

ancient-origins's picture


This is the Ancient Origins team, and here is our mission: “To inspire open-minded learning about our past for the betterment of our future through the sharing of research, education, and knowledge”.

At Ancient Origins we believe that one of... Read More

Next article