All  
An Oldowan stone tool core freshly excavated at Ain Boucherit, Algeria.

Stone Tools Found in Algeria Provide Evidence Human Origins Were Spread Throughout Africa

A collection of prehistoric stone tools and butchered animal bones was discovered in 1992 at the Ain Boucherit archaeological site on the north-eastern high Algerian plateau have now been dated to 2.4 million years old. This dating directly challenges the current evolutionary paradigm that east Africa was the “cradle of humanity,” as they are approximately the same age as the oldest known tools which were found in Gona, Ethiopia, dated to 2.6 million years old.

The research was published in the journal  Science, and an article in Nature informs that “The oldest known widespread stone-tool technology, called the Oldowan , is thought to have arisen in East Africa some 2.6 million years ago and then spread across the continent.” But this new discovery suggests that tool production might “have popped up independently in different parts of Africa.”

A reconstructed skull of an Australopithecus garhi, one of the species that used Oldowan-like stone tools. (Ji-Elle/CC BY SA 3.0)

A reconstructed skull of an Australopithecus garhi, one of the species that used Oldowan-like stone tools. (Ji-Elle/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

A Multiple Origin Scenario for Humanity?

The archaeologists report in  Science says that the tools were “typical of the Oldowan stone tools already known of in east Africa” and that they were “unearthed near dozens of fossilized animal bones, with cut marks on them, from early crocodiles, elephants and hippopotamuses, and archaeologists think this could be evidence of meat-eating.”

Oldowan artifacts, including unifacial cores on limestone (1 and 9); bifacial core made of limestone (10) and on flint (2); polyhedral cores on limestone (11 and 12); subspherical core on limestone (3); whole flakes on flint (7, 16, and 17) and on limestone (4, 5, 6, 13, and 14); and retouched pieces on flint (8 and 15). (Sahnouni, M. et al.)

Oldowan artifacts, including unifacial cores on limestone (1 and 9); bifacial core made of limestone (10) and on flint (2); polyhedral cores on limestone (11 and 12); subspherical core on limestone (3); whole flakes on flint (7, 16, and 17) and on limestone (4, 5, 6, 13, and 14); and retouched pieces on flint (8 and 15). ( Sahnouni, M. et al .)

These new findings suggest hominins inhabited North Africa around 600,000 years earlier than previously thought, and according to an article in The Independent , this also means "Human ancestors may have walked like people far earlier than thought.” According to Professor Mohamed Sahnouni at the National Research Centre on Human Evolution in Spain, who led the research, “One hypothesis is that our early ancestors quickly carried stone tools with them out of east Africa and into other regions. Another is a “multiple-origin scenario” in which early hominids made and used tools in both east and north Africa.” “The evidence from Algeria shows that the cradle of humankind was not restricted to only east Africa. Rather the entire African continent was the cradle of humankind” added Professor Sahnouni.

Battle for the Planet of the Apes

“But who made the tools”? asks an article in New Scientist . “There are no human fossils at Ain Boucherit, so the toolmaker’s identity is unclear. Hominin evolution 2.4 million years ago was in flux. Successful earlier hominins, including  Australopithecus, were beginning to disappear, and early species of  Homo were taking over.” Professor Sahnouni suspects “the Algerian tools were made by one of these early  Homo species.” Professor Jessica Thompson at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, who wasn’t involved in the study, told reporters at New Scientist “If I had a line-up and I had to pick one, that would be the one I’d pick.”

The original complete skull (without upper teeth and mandible) of a 2.1 million year old Australopithecus africanus specimen so-called Mrs. Ples, discovered in South Africa. (José Braga; Didier Descouens/CC BY SA 4.0)

The original complete skull (without upper teeth and mandible) of a 2.1 million year old Australopithecus africanus specimen so-called Mrs. Ples, discovered in South Africa. (José Braga; Didier Descouens/ CC BY SA 4.0 )

However, it is also Professor Thompson that provides a degree of skepticism to some of the claims made by the scientists, for example, while she agrees the stones are actually tools, “she is not convinced that the animal bones are covered in cutmarks because “natural processes might scratch the surface of bones in a similar way.” What is more, Thompson also contests the dating of the stone tools, saying “they might not be quite 2.4 million years old, because that date assumes the soil and sediment at Ain Boucherit accumulated at a steady rate.”

Evidence of hominin activity from Ain Boucherit faunal assemblages. (A and B) Slicing mark on a medium size bovid humerus shaft (A) with SEM micrograph detail (B). (C and D) Cutmarked equid calcaneum (C) with SEM micrograph detail (D). (E) Hammerstone percussed medium size long bone. (F) Bone flake. (G) Equid tibia showing cortical percussion notch. (Sahnouni, M. et al)

Evidence of hominin activity from Ain Boucherit faunal assemblages. (A and B) Slicing mark on a medium size bovid humerus shaft (A) with SEM micrograph detail (B). (C and D) Cutmarked equid calcaneum (C) with SEM micrograph detail (D). (E) Hammerstone percussed medium size long bone. (F) Bone flake. (G) Equid tibia showing cortical percussion notch. ( Sahnouni, M. et al )

Whether the markings on the bones are natural or carved by hand, only time will tell, but Professor Sahnouni and colleague Mathieu Duval concluded  in a joint article : “This new discovery modifies our understanding of the timing and diffusion of the Oldowan stone tool technology throughout Africa and outside the continent.”

Top Image: An Oldowan stone tool core freshly excavated at Ain Boucherit, Algeria. Source: M. Sahnouni

By Ashley Cowie

Register to become part of our active community, get updates, receive a monthly newsletter, and enjoy the benefits and rewards of our member point system OR just post your comment below as a Guest.

Next article