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Archaeologist Dr. Paloma de la Peña working at one of the lithic tool sites that revealed the ancient communication network across the region for making these tools to near exact specifications. Source: © Dr Paloma de la Peña

65,000-Year-Old ‘Swiss Army Knife’ Tool Reveals Ancient Communication

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A team of international scientists has discovered an enlightening fact about early humans who lived in southern Africa between 60,000 and 65,000 years ago. Similarities in their toolmaking technology indicated there must have been a method of long-distance ancient communication.

As reported in the latest edition of Scientific Reports , these researchers have confirmed that people living in this region at this Middle Paleolithic date were widely using a versatile type of stone tool known as a backed artifact. The remarkable fact here is that the ancient southern Africans were manufacturing this precisely designed tool using the same template in different sections of the continent, across distances that would not have been easy to traverse. Knowledge about this technology was obviously being shared, despite any geographical barriers that may have existed.

What this shows is that people in southern Africa 65,000 years ago were in the process of creating a shared, cooperative culture, spanning a greater-than-usual distance that resulted in an ancient communication network. It was right around this time that early modern humans began to migrate from Africa to Eurasia in significant numbers, and the researchers involved in this new study believe the interconnectedness displayed in their tool-sharing practices helps explain how such large-scale mass migration was possible and successful.

Early humans across southern Africa made a particular type of stone tool, the backed artifact, in the same shape, and this lithic copying across great distances is indicative of an ancient communications network across the region. (© Dr Paloma de la Peña)

Early humans across southern Africa made a particular type of stone tool, the backed artifact, in the same shape, and this lithic copying across great distances is indicative of an ancient communications network across the region. (© Dr Paloma de la Peña )

Ancient Communications Made the ‘Big Africa Exit’ A Success

The tool in question has been nicknamed the “Stone Age Swiss army knife ” of prehistory because of its versatility and usefulness. It was manufactured according to standards specific to its place and time, having been invented during the celebrated Howiesons Poort cultural period. This era of technological innovation lasted from approximately 65,800 years ago to 59,500 years ago and is named after the Howieson’s Poort archaeological site that was discovered near Grahamstown, South Africa .

The researchers involved in the study of the Howiesons Poort backed artifacts were led by archaeologist Dr. Amy Mosig Way from the University of Sydney, who is also affiliated with the Australian Museum. Dr. Mosig Way’s team was delighted to discover that the backed stone tools had been so broadly used in southern Africa, clearly indicating a shared intent and purpose.

Tools of a similar style were manufactured at many other places around the world, but with distinctive shapes that made them unique to their regions. People in southern Africa were also relying on a unique blueprint or model to make their version of the tool, but this activity occurred in different geographical and ecological areas separated by a relatively large amount of space. The backed artifacts were recovered from Middle Paleolithic sites as far as 1,200 kilometers (746 miles) apart, an impressive distance given that people who lived 65,000 years ago had no transportation options outside of walking.

“One hundred kilometers takes five days to walk, so it’s probably a whole network of groups that are mostly in contact with the neighboring group,” Dr. Mosig Way said in an interview with the Guardian .

Most significantly, Dr. Way links these ancient communication interconnections to the success of what she terms the “big exit” from Africa that took place at around this time.

“People have walked out of Africa for hundreds of thousands of years , and we have evidence for early Homo sapiens in Greece and the Levant from around 200 thousand years ago,” Dr. Way explained in an Australian Museum press release . “But these earlier exits were overprinted by the big exit around 60-70 thousand years ago, which involved the ancestors of all modern people who live outside of Africa today.”

This image shows some of the lithic tool copies and the location of the seven sites analyzed in the breakthrough study. (Scientific Reports )

This image shows some of the lithic tool copies and the location of the seven sites analyzed in the breakthrough study. ( Scientific Reports )

The most curious aspect of the "big exit" was its great influence in comparison to earlier migrations, which involved fewer people and did not have the same lasting effects.

“Why was this exodus so successful where the earlier excursions were not?” Dr. Mosig Way asked rhetorically. “The main theory is that social networks were stronger at this time. This analysis shows for the first time that these social connections were in place in southern Africa just before the big exodus.”

Dr. Mosig Way is convinced this timing was not a coincidence, but proof that such strong social connections were needed to guarantee a successful migration to other parts of the world.

The Role of Climate in Social and Technological Innovation

Study co-author Dr. Paloma de la Peña, who is currently associated with the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at the University of Cambridge, pointed out that the ubiquitous backed artifacts would have been useful for both domestic activities (cutting and scraping) and hunting activities (they could double as projectiles, or barbs, that would be sharp enough to kill).

“While the making of the stone tool was not particularly difficult, the hafting of the stone to the handle through the use of glue and adhesives was hard, which highlights that they [early Homo sapiens ] were sharing and communicating complex information with each other,” she said.

Dr. de la Peña also noted that the backed tools suddenly proliferated in southern Africa during a time of environmental upheaval.

“What was also striking was that the abundance of tools made in the same shape coincided with great changes in the climatic conditions. We believe that this is a social response to the changing environment across southern Africa,” she said.

In other words, changes in climate gave people more reason to cooperate with each other and share useful information and technology, as all had to be more concerned with their survival than ever before.

The chief scientist at the Australian Museum, Kristofer Helgen, believes ancient humans depended on cooperation and social networking, which is what information sharing is all about, just as much as modern humans. (mast3r / Adobe Stock)

The chief scientist at the Australian Museum, Kristofer Helgen, believes ancient humans depended on cooperation and social networking, which is what information sharing is all about, just as much as modern humans. ( mast3r / Adobe Stock)

How Sharing Made Stone Age Survival Easier

Australian Museum chief scientist Kristofer Helgen, who was not directly involved in this new research project, said these findings confirm that ancient humans depended on cooperation and social networking just as much as modern humans.

“Examining why early human populations were successful is critical to understanding our evolutionary path,” Professor Helgen explained. “This research provides new insights into our understanding of those social networks and how they contributed to the expansion of modern humans across Eurasia.”

The idea is not just that early modern humans made use of social networking, but that they did so in a way that made processes more efficient.

“The main theory as to why modern humans replaced all the other humans living outside Africa around 60-70,000 years ago is that our ancestors were much better at social networking than the other species, such as Neanderthals, who were possibly smarter and stronger as individuals, but not great at sharing information,” Dr. de la Peña said.

The widespread sharing of important toolmaking technology by early modern humans in southern Africa presents a clear example of effective social networking. Since these highly specialized artifacts truly were the Swiss army knives of ancient times, their broad distribution could have dramatically increased people’s collective survival chances. And this would have been key in the “big exit” from Africa that happened about 65,000 years ago!

Top image: Archaeologist Dr. Paloma de la Peña working at one of the lithic tool sites that revealed the ancient communication network across the region for making these tools to near exact specifications. Source: © Dr Paloma de la Peña

By Nathan Falde

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Human evolution and natural climate change have been constant bedfellows. Nothing is different now.

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