“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:
- “Oldest Stone Tools Ever Found Were Not Made by Human Hands, Study Suggests“
Clare Watson, ScienceAlert (February 10, 2023)
- “The 3 MILLION-year-old toolkit: Early human cousins may have been using stone utensils 300,000 years before we did, artefacts in Kenya suggest“
Fiona Jackson, Mailonline (February 10, 2023)
- “Stone Age discovery in Kenya fuels mystery of who made the earliest tools“
Maddie Burakoff, Associated Press, via PBS NewsHour (February 9, 2023)
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
- Stone Tools and Humanity’s Family History
- Taxonomy, Attitudes, Assumptions and the Age of Enlightenment
- Accepting This Universe ‘As Is’
Learning Humanity’s Long Story
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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’
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
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.”
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
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 5:43–44, 7:12, 22:36–40, Mark 12:28–31; 10:25–27, 29–37; 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:
- “Appearance, Ancestry, and Me at the Grand Canyon“
(February 12, 2022)
- “Evolution: Science, Religion, Opinions and Me“
(August 28, 2021)
- “Secondary Causes: Both/And, not Either/Or“
(August 21, 2021)
- “Evolution and Tools“
(March 26, 2018)
- “Chasing Butterflies and Truth“
(January 19, 2018)
1 Archaeology, paleontology, writing, fossils and all that:
- “The non-uniformity of fossil preservation“
Steven M. Holland, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (July 19, 2016) via PMC PubMed Central
- Presocratics: Anaximander
Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- Under what conditions do fossils form?
American Geosciences Institute
- “Ancient stone tools found in Kenya made by early humans“
BBC News (February 10, 2023)
- “Discovery at 2.9-Million-Year-Old African Site Prompts New Consideration of Who Made First Stone Tools“
James Devitt, News Release, NYU (New York University, New York, NY) (February 9, 2023)
- “Expanded geographic distribution and dietary strategies of the earliest Oldowan hominins and Paranthropus“
Thomas W. Plummer, James S. Oliver, Emma M. Finestone, Peter W. Ditchfield, Laura C. Bishop, Scott A. Blumenthal, Cristina Lemorini, Isabella Caricola, Shara E. Bailey, et al.; Science (February 9, 2023)
- “Archaeologists Take Wrong Turn, Find World’s Oldest Stone Tools [Update]“
Kate Wong, Observations, Scientific American (May 20, 2015)
3 Fossils, tools and questions:
- Cerutti Mastodon site (ca. 130,700 B.P.)
- Clovis culture
- Tom Dillehay (The”Distinguished Professor…” I mentioned)
- Oldowan and Acheulean Stone Tools
Museum of Anthropology, College of Arts and Science, University of Missouri
- What Does it Mean to be Human? Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
- My take, in 2017
- “First Americans?” (May 5, 2017)
- “First Americans claim sparks controversy“
Paul Rincon, BBC News (April 26, 2017)
- “Oldest stone tools pre-date earliest humans“
Rebecca Morelle, BBC News (May 20, 2015)
4 Apes and the Age of Enlightenment:
- Age of Enlightenment
- Denisovan (Homo denisova, Homo altaiensis, or something else)
- Family (biology)
- François Bernier
- Historical race concepts
- Homo habilis
- Human (Homo sapiens)
- Human evolution
- Interbreeding between archaic and modern humans
- Neanderthal (Homo neanderthalensis or Homo sapiens neanderthalensis)
- Pan (genus)
- Race (human categorization)
- Scientific racism
- Taxonomic rank
- Taxonomy (biology)