Ancient Stone Tools: Hello, Fellow Humans?

Oldowan tools found in Kenya: 'The excavation site in Nyayanga where hundreds of stone tools dating to roughly 2.9 million years ago were found' (February 10, 2023) Text, BBC News; photo, Reuters
Researchers have been finding older Oldowan tools found in Nyayanga, Kenya. (2023)

Ancient stone tools found in Kenya made by early humans
BBC News (February 10, 2023)

Archaeologists in Kenya have dug up some of the oldest stone tools ever used by ancient humans, dating back around 2.9 million years.

“It is evidence that the tools were used by other branches of early humans, not just the ancestors of Homo Sapiens.

“The tools were used to butcher hippos and pound plant materials like tubers and fruit, the researchers said.

“Two big fossil teeth found at the site belong to an extinct human cousin, known as Paranthropus….”

One aspect of these discoveries, “…other branches of early humans, not just the ancestors of Homo Sapiens…”, has inspired headlines like these:

That reminded me that it’s been some time since I talked about tools, evolution and how Age of Enlightenment aristocrats viewed different species. And why I don’t see a point in complaining about how this universe works.

So here’s what I wrote, divided into bite-sized chunks. That’s an awkward metaphor, but never mind:

Learning Humanity’s Long Story

University of Kansas News photo: hand stencils made by Neanderthals in Maltravieso Cave, western Spain. (2018) via BBC News, used w/o permission
Hand stencils made by Neanderthals in Maltravieso Cave, western Spain. (2018)

We’ve been systematically studying human evolution, how we’ve been changing, for two centuries, give or take.

That’s assuming that the process started with Carl Linnaeus, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, Alfred Russel Wallace or Charles Darwin.

Take another sampling from humanity’s archives, and we’ve been working on the puzzle for two and a half millennia.

That’s giving Anaximander credit for first speculating that the universe hasn’t always been like it is now: and that we have our origins in animals.

But I’ll split the difference between Linnaeus/Lamarck and Wallace/Darwin, and say we’ve been studying human origins for about two centuries.

USGS/Graham and Newman's geological time spiral: 'A path to the past.' (2008)Two centuries sounds like a long time.

So how come all that studying hasn’t given us a full account of how we got to where we are now?

I figure there are at least two reasons.

First, the more we’ve learned, the more complicated our story has become.

Second, although we’ve been filling in the gaps, we’re still far from having found all the pages in humanity’s long story. Literally and metaphorically.

We’ve only been keeping written records for a few millennia, and that paper trail is very far from complete.

Piecing together what’s been happening before cuneiform and Zapotec script caught on is another matter. One that depends on analyzing physical evidence: ruins, traces of campfires, tools, along with the occasional (and often partial) skeleton.

That last is tricky, since very few critters of any sort get fossilized.

Since humans don’t (and very likely didn’t) prefer living in fossilization-friendly places like stagnant swamps: well, critters like us don’t leave many fossils.1

Next, tools and teeth.

Stone Tools and Humanity’s Family History

Oldowan tools found in Kenya: 'The analysis of wear patterns on 30 of the stone tools found at the site showed that they had been used to cut, scrape and pound both animals and plants' (February 10, 2023) Text, BBC News; photo, Reuters
Stone tools found Nyayanga, used to cut, scrape and pound both animals and plants.

The oldest stone tools are, according to some sources I’ve seen, Oldowan.

Oldowan is a style or type — industry or technocomplex in archaeologist jargon — that dates from around 1,700,000 to 2,900,000 years back.

My guess is that ‘Oldowan first’ sources predate the 2011 discovery of Lomekwi tools near Kenya’s Lake Turkana.

Researchers had been heading for a spot where Kenyanthropus platyops fossils had been found. They took a wrong turn, decided to look around anyway, and found stone tools.

A year later, they came back for a thorough investigation at what they called the Lomekwi 3 archaeological site.

Stone tools found at the Lomekwi 3 archaeological site in West Turkana, Kenya. From '3.3-million-year-old stone tools from Lomekwi 3, West Turkana, Kenya' Sonia Harmand et al., Nature (May 2015) used w/o permission.The picture with a white background shows tools they found.

They were made about 3,300,000 years before Ace Hardware opened their doors. One of the researchers called them Lomekwian tools.2

Whether or not the name’s caught on is another topic. But that’s what I’ll call them this week.

Who made the earliest stone tools is debatable and debated.

So, at least for a while, if my memory serves, was whether the oldest stone tools were really fabricated tools. Or whether they were just rocks that happened to look like tools and that could be used as tools.

I made a quick check before writing this, and found general agreement that Oldowan and Lomekwian tools aren’t random rocks. So looks like that debate’s over. Or I didn’t look in the right places.

I’ll grant that Lomekwian tools aren’t as obviously fabricated as arrowheads and spear points my grandfather found.

Then there’s the still-controversial Cerutti Mastodon site.

The Continuing Cerutti Site Debate, Oldowan Tools and Paranthropus Teeth

Kate Johnson, San Diego NHM's photos at the Cerutti Mastodon site near San Diego CA: researchers could re-produce the same patterns seen at the Cerutti Mastodon site near San Diego CA. (2017) via BBC News, used w/o permission
Researchers reproducing breakage patterns found at the Cerutti Mastodon site in California. (2017)

The Cerutti Mastodon site is in San Diego County, California. Paleontologist Richard Cerutti spotted it during road construction. The site’s status is still undecided.

It’s either a 130,000-year-old paleontological site, or it’s an archaeological site. If it’s an archaeological site, the Clovis First theory for how folks got to North America isn’t right.

Some researchers say the Cerutti site’s rocks are tools, and that it’s an archaeological site.

Others — including a Distinguished Professor of Anthropology, Religion, and Culture and Professor of Anthropology — say they’re just rocks that happen to look like tools. And that the mastodon bones just happen to look like they’ve been worked by the tools.

They may be right.

Anyway, getting back to those 3,300,000-year-old Lomekwian tools and the ‘who made them’ puzzle, scientists matched a Lomekwian flake to its core. So looks like someone made those tools on-site. Who the someone was is less certain:

“…The identity of the Lomekwi knappers is unknown. If stone tool manufacture is the exclusive purview of Homo, then Homo must have evolved far earlier than the fossil record currently indicates. A more plausible scenario, Harmand said, is that Australopithecus or another hominin, Kenyanthropus (found nearby)—both of which are known to have been around 3.3 million years ago–made the Lomekwi tools. Whether Kenyanthropus is in fact a distinct hominin lineage or part of Australopithecus is a matter of debate, however….”
(“Archaeologists Take Wrong Turn, Find World’s Oldest Stone Tools [Update]“, Kate Wong, Observations, Scientific American (May 20, 2015))

Kenyanthropus, Australopithecus and Paranthropus are three genera of Hominidae. Unless, as Wong said, Kenyanthropus is part of the Australopithecus genus.

That’s a lot of five-dollar words, but since the topic’s taxonomy, that’s what I’m stuck with.

Recapping, Kenyanthropus probably made the Lomekwian tools, since their remains were near the tools. And Paranthropus probably made the Oldowan tools found in Nyayanga, Kenya, since researchers found two of their teeth nearby.

And I’m inclined to see all of the above as “human.” Even though they’re not currently classified as being in our Homo genus.3 And that brings me to (fairly) current events.

Taxonomy, Attitudes, Assumptions and the Age of Enlightenment

Anicet Charles Gabriel Lemonnier's 'Reading of Voltaire's L'Orphelin de la Chine' (a tragedy about Ghengis Khan and his sons, published in 1755), in the salon of Madame Geoffrin (Malmaison, 1812).
Lemonnier’s painting: Enlightenment-era folks reading Voltaire in Madame Geoffrin’s salon (1812))

I’d talk about how Paranthropus fits into humanity’s family tree. But I can’t.

Or, more accurately, I won’t.

Paranthropus is a genus of Hominidae that’s a cousin to our genus, along with Homo (that’s us), and pan (chimps and bonobos). Probably.

Gdr, Cescac, Dbachmann's 'Hominidae taxonomy'. From Wikipedia, used w/o permission.If that’s so, all three — Homo, Paranthropus and Pan — are in the Homini tribe.

In this context, families, subfamilies, tribes, and genera are taxonomic groups.

Taxonomy is the study of naming, defining and classifying living critters. And that’s yet another topic. One that I’ll mostly ignore for now.

The next taxonomic grouping down from genus is species.

Illustration from the H. Strickland Constable's 'Ireland from One or Two Neglected Points of View.' (1899) From H. Strickland Constable, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.How scientists define species keeps changing, as we learn more about how life, the universe and everything works.

And as we get over the Age of Enlightenment notion that “race” and “species” mean the same thing.4

I suspect that the current scientific definition of “species” is due for another revision. Whether or not that revision includes classifying Denisovans, Neanderthals and humanity’s current model as a single species? That, I don’t know.

I think it makes sense, for pretty much the same reasons I think that the Scots, black-haired Norwegians, the Irish, Germans and the English are all part of one species.

And that’s yet again another topic.

Accepting This Universe ‘As Is’

Efbrazil/Eric Fisk's illustration: a 'cosmic calendar'. This universe, so far: 13,800,000,000 years mapped onto a 12-month calendar. (2013) via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.

It’s been some time since I explained why I don’t have a problem with living in a huge and ancient universe. And don’t see a point in complaining about how it works.

So I’ll do a quick recap. And probably add some of this to my Science AND Religion pages.

I think God is large and in charge, creating a universe that follows knowable physical laws. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 268, 279, 299, 301-305; “Gaudium et spes,” 5, 15, Second Vatican Council, Bl. Pope Paul VI (December 7, 1965))

This universe is changing: in a “state of journeying” toward perfection. (Catechism, 268, 279, 299, 301-308, 310)

Everything we observe reflects a facet of the Creator’s truth, according to its nature. (Catechism, 301-308)

Natural processes involve secondary causes: creatures acting in knowable ways, following laws woven into this creation. (I talked about secondary causes back in August of 2021: that link is in the usual ‘more stuff’ list, below)

Learning about this universe gives me more reasons to admire God’s work. Which seems obvious, since I believe that God creates everything, and that God is not a liar. (Catechism, 159, 214-217, 282-283, 294, 341)

Again, studying this world, learning what’s happened since it started, is a good idea. (Catechism, 282-289)

Here’s where it gets tricky, maybe.

Using My Brain

'Man is but a Worm' cartoon, caricaturing Darwin's theory, from the Punch almanac for 1882. (1981)I think humans are rational animals. (Catechism, 1951)

Make that optionally rational.

We have free will, so using our brains is a choice, not a hardwired response. (Catechism, 1730, 1778, 1804, 1951, 2339)

Maybe one of these days I’ll talk about seeing myself as a rational animal, but not just an animal. But today is not that day.

Today I’ve been talking about evolution, among other things.

Here’s where I try to explain, briefly, why I don’t see a problem with thinking that we are formed from the the stuff of this world.

It’s something we’ve known for millennia.

“then the LORD God formed the man out of the dust of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.”
(Genesis 2:7)

All that’s changed over the last couple centuries is how much we know about the “dust of the ground” we’re made from.

We’re still made “in the image of God”, with body AND soul. (Catechism, 355-373)

As for science and religion, faith and reason: I’m a Catholic, so I think faith and reason get along fine. (Catechism, 159)

Finally, there’s the issue of who I think is “human” and who isn’t.

Love, Neighbors and Being Human

José-Manuel Benito Álvarez' drawing of a hand holding a hand axe. (2000) via WikiMedia Commons, used w/o permission.The rules are simple. Not easy, but simple.

I should love God and my neighbors, and see everyone as my neighbor. That’s everyone. No exceptions. (Matthew 5:4344, 7:12, 22:3640, Mark 12:2831; 10:2527, 2937; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1789)

Applying those rules to everyone alive today: like I said, not always easy, but simple.

Happily, the branch of natural philosophy we call science has come around to seeing all of today’s humanity as a single species.

As for folks like Kenyanthropus? I don’t know. But it’s becoming increasingly obvious that although humanity’s early models didn’t look just like us, they acted like us. I’ll willingly assume that people who make and use tools, and keep them on hand, are — people.

There’s still the question of fire, and string, and that’s still more topics.

I’ve talked about some of this before:

1 Archaeology, paleontology, writing, fossils and all that:

2 Tools over time:

3 Fossils, tools and questions:

4 Apes and the Age of Enlightenment:

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About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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