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Oldest Tool Use Thrown Back To Two million Years In Oldupai Gorge Find

Oldest Tool Use Thrown Back To Two million Years In Oldupai Gorge Find

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An interdisciplinary team of researchers have unearthed the oldest stone tools at the oldest archaeological site in the famous Oldupai Gorge, popularly known as the Cradle of Humankind. Their discoveries also reveal how the earliest hominins coped with climate change two million years ago.

The new study is published in  Nature Communications  and provides an ecological perspective on early human adaptability two million years ago. It is focused on Ewass Oldupai - the oldest archaeological site in Oldupai (formerly Olduvai) Gorge. The study demonstrates how hominins adapted to the region’s diverse environmental conditions over a 200,000 year period.

New interdisciplinary field work has led to the discovery of the oldest archaeological site in Oldupai Gorge, which shows that early humans used a wide diversity of habitats amidst environmental changes across a 200,000 year-long period. (Michael Petraglia)

New interdisciplinary field work has led to the discovery of the oldest archaeological site in Oldupai Gorge, which shows that early humans used a wide diversity of habitats amidst environmental changes across a 200,000 year-long period. ( Michael Petraglia )

Discoveries at Oldupai Gorge, the Famous Cradle of Humankind

Oldupai Gorge  is a very important paleoanthropological site located in Tanzania in the Great Rift Valley. For more than a century, researchers have been excavating in this area, and cumulatively they have found hundreds of fossils and stone tools which date back millions of years. The site was made famous by  Louis and Mary Leakey  and is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

EurekAlert! reports that, despite the long history of surveys and excavations at the Oldupai Gorge, there has been a lack of ecological studies associated with the cultural remains which have been found there. This allows the new study to cast light on the environmental contexts in which the early hominins lived.

The study comes from an international and interdisciplinary team of researchers from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany, the University of Calgary in Canada, and the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. The researchers convened for excavations at the Ewass Oldupa and they have unearthed the oldest Oldowan stone tools ever found at Oldupai Gorge. The stone tools date from roughly 2 to 1.8 million years ago.

Excavations at Ewass Oldupa uncovered the oldest Oldowan stone tools ever found at Oldupai Gorge, dating to ~2 million years ago, and also unearthed fossils of mammals, reptiles and birds. (Michael Petraglia)

Excavations at Ewass Oldupa uncovered the oldest Oldowan stone tools ever found at Oldupai Gorge, dating to ~2 million years ago, and also unearthed fossils of mammals, reptiles and birds. ( Michael Petraglia )

Remaining Stable in Changing Environments

Paleoanthropologists at the site studied fossils from a variety of animals, including primates, wild cattle and pigs, hippos, panthers, lions, hyenas, reptiles, and birds. They found that over 200,000 years, the habitat changed and included fern meadows, woodland mosaics, naturally burned landscapes, lakeside palm groves and dry steppe environments.

Outcrop geometry, stratigraphic architecture, and idealized vegetation at Ewass Oldupa. a) Post-eruptive, fern meadow. b) Coarse Feldspar Crystal Tuff mosaics. c) Woodland with palms and ferns. d) Grasslands. e) Open woodland. f) Asteraceae-dominated scrub. (Mercader, J. et al. Nature 2021)

Outcrop geometry, stratigraphic architecture, and idealized vegetation at Ewass Oldupa. a) Post-eruptive, fern meadow. b) Coarse Feldspar Crystal Tuff  mosaics. c) Woodland with palms and ferns. d) Grasslands. e) Open woodland. f) Asteraceae-dominated scrub. (Mercader, J. et al.  Nature 2021 )

The combined paleoanthropological and archaeological evidence shows that hominin activities recurred, but were periodically absent in the changing environment. Dr. Pastory Bushozi of Dar es Salaam University, Tanzania,  said that “the occupation of varied and unstable environments, including after volcanic activity, is one of the earliest examples of adaptation to major ecological transformations.”

Even though the environment was changing, the researchers found that the prehistoric hominin toolkits remained more or less the same. The iconic  Oldowan pebble and cobble cores, sharp-edged flakes, and polyhedral cobbles were still used to butcher animals and process plants, no matter how the habitat changed over the 200,000 years.

Who Made the Ewass Oldupa Tools?

You may be wondering by now which group of our prehistoric ancestors made the oldest Oldowan  stone tools  ever found at Oldupai Gorge. The possible toolmaker group is not certain, since no hominin fossils have been found at Ewass Oldupa yet, but it has been narrowed down to three possible hominin species.

Selection of stone tools from Ewass Oldupa. (Mercader, J. et al. Nature 2021)

Selection of stone tools from Ewass Oldupa.  (Mercader, J. et al.  Nature 2021 )

One possibility is that  Homo habilis  created the tools. Their fossils have been found in 1.82-million-year-old deposits at a location just 350 meters (1148.29 ft.) away from Ewass Oldupa. Professor Julio Mercader of the University of Calgary  stated that “these early humans were surely ranging widely over the landscape and along shores of the ancient lake.”

But Mercader also noted that  australopithecines were also around Ewass Oldupa at the time and probably making and using stone tools in the area and members of the  Paranthropus genus also lived in Oldupai Gorge in the same time period; both of these groups could be not be ruled out as the prehistoric toolmakers.

Setting the Stage for Bigger Things

The researchers  write that their findings at Oldupai Gorge are “unique for this period and depicts complex behavior among early  Pleistocene hominins.” They explain  that the ability of the hominins to adapt to the changing environments at Oldupai Gorge prepared our prehistoric ancestors for bigger goals.

Combining the recent Oldupai Gorge discoveries with other finds across eastern Africa suggests that by 2 million years ago, hominins had the behavioral abilities they needed to expand into  new ecosystems , and they used those abilities. As Professor Michael Petraglia of the Max Planck Institute  noted that “This behavioural flexibility arose in the context of the dawn of the evolution of our own genus, Homo, and it set the stage for the eventual global, invasive  spread of Homo sapiens .”

Top Image: The excavations uncovered the oldest Oldowan stone tools ever found at Oldupai Gorge, dating to ~2 million years ago. Source:  Michael Petraglia / Mercader, J. et al.,  Nature 2021

By Alicia McDermott

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