Scientists Discover World's Oldest Stone Tools
Scientists working in the desert badlands of northwestern Kenya have found stone tools dating back 3.3 million years, long before the advent of modern humans, and by far the oldest such artifacts yet discovered.
The tools, whose makers may or may not have been some sort of human ancestor, push the known date of such tools back by 700,000 years; they also may challenge the notion that our own most direct ancestors were the first to bang two rocks together to create a new technology.
The discovery is the first evidence that an even earlier group of proto-humans may have had the thinking abilities needed to figure out how to make sharp-edged tools. The stone tools mark “a new beginning to the known archaeological record," say the authors of a new paper about the discovery, published today in the leading scientific journal Nature.
“The whole site's surprising, it just rewrites the book on a lot of things that we thought were true," said geologist Chris Lepre of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and Rutgers University, a co-author of the paper who precisely dated the artifacts. The tools "shed light on an unexpected and previously unknown period of hominin behavior and can tell us a lot about cognitive development in our ancestors that we can't understand from fossils alone," said lead author Sonia Harmand, of the Turkana Basin Institute at Stony Brook University and the Université Paris Ouest Nanterre.
Hominins are a group of species that includes modern humans, Homo sapiens , and our closest evolutionary ancestors. Anthropologists long thought that our relatives in the genus Homo—the line leading directly to Homo sapiens—were the first to craft such stone tools. But researchers have been uncovering tantalizing clues that some other, earlier species of hominin, distant cousins, if you will, might have figured it out.
The researchers do not know who made these oldest of tools. But earlier finds suggest a possible answer: The skull of a 3.3-million-year-old hominin, Kenyanthropus platytops, was found in 1999 about a kilometer from the tool site. A K. platyops tooth and a bone from a skull were discovered a few hundred meters away, and an as-yet unidentified tooth has been found about 100 meters away.
The precise family tree of modern humans is contentious, and so far, no one knows exactly how K. platyops relates to other hominin species.Kenyanthropus predates the earliest known Homospecies by a half a million years. This species could have made the tools; or, the toolmaker could have been some other species from the same era, such as Australopithecus afarensis, or an as-yet undiscovered early type of Homo.
Lepre said a layer of volcanic ash below the tool site set a “floor" on the site's age: It matched ash elsewhere that had been dated to about 3.3 million years ago, based on the ratio of argon isotopes in the material. To more sharply define the time period of the tools, Lepre and co-author and Lamont-Doherty colleague Dennis Kent examined magnetic minerals beneath, around and above the spots where the tools were found.
The Earth's magnetic field periodically reverses itself, and the chronology of those changes is well documented going back millions of years. “We essentially have a magnetic tape recorder that records the magnetic field … the music of the outer core," Kent said. By tracing the variations in the polarity of the samples, they dated the site to 3.33 million to 3.11 million years.
Another co-author, Rhonda Quinn of Seton Hall University, studied carbon isotopes in the soil, which along with animal fossils at the site allowed researchers to reconstruct the area's vegetation. This led to another surprise: The area was at that time a partially wooded, shrubby environment. Conventional thinking has been that sophisticated tool-making came in response to a change in climate that led to the spread of broad savannah grasslands, and the consequent evolution of large groups of animals that could serve as a source of food for human ancestors.
One line of thinking is that hominins started knapping—banging one rock against another to make sharp-edged stones—so they could cut meat off of animal carcasses, said paper co-author Jason Lewis of the Turkana Basin Institute and Rutgers. But the size and markings of the newly discovered tools “suggest they were doing something different as well, especially if they were in a more wooded environment with access to various plant resources," Lewis said. The researchers think the tools could have been used for breaking open nuts or tubers, bashing open dead logs to get at insects inside, or maybe something not yet thought of.
“The capabilities of our ancestors and the environmental forces leading to early stone technology are a great scientific mystery," said Richard Potts , director of the Human Origins Program at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, who was not involved in the research. The newly dated tools “begin to lift the veil on that mystery, at an earlier time than expected," he said. Potts said he had examined the stone tools during a visit to Kenya in February.
“Researchers have thought there must be some way of flaking stone that preceded the simplest tools known until now," he said. “Harmand's team shows us just what this even simpler altering of rocks looked like before technology became a fundamental part of early human behavior."
Ancient stone artifacts from East Africa were first uncovered at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania in the mid-20th century, and those tools were later associated with fossil discoveries in the 1960s of the early human ancestor Homo habilis. That species has been dated to 2.1 million to 1.5 million years ago.
Subsequent finds have pushed back the dates of humans' evolutionary ancestors, and of stone tools, raising questions about who first made that cognitive leap. The discovery of a partial lower jaw in the Afar region of Ethiopia, announced on March 4, pushes the fossil record for the genusHomo to 2.8 million years ago. Evidence from recent papers, the authors note, suggests that there is anatomical evidence that Homo had evolved into several distinct lines by 2 million years ago.
There is some evidence of more primitive tool use going back even before the new find. In 2009, researchers at Dikika, Ethiopia, dug up 3.39 million-year-old animal bones marked with slashes and other cut marks, evidence that someone used stones to trim flesh from bone and perhaps crush bones to get at the marrow inside. That is the earliest evidence of meat and marrow consumption by hominins . No tools were found at the site, so it's unclear whether the marks were made with crafted tools or simply sharp-edged stones. The only hominin fossil remains in the area dating to that time are from Australopithecus afarensis.
The new find came about almost by accident: Harmand and Lewis said that on the morning of July 9, 2011, they had wandered off on the wrong path, and climbed a hill to scout a fresh route back to their intended track. They wrote that they “could feel that something was special about this particular place." They fanned out and surveyed a nearby patch of craggy outcrops. “By teatime," they wrote, “local Turkana tribesman Sammy Lokorodi had helped [us] spot what [we] had come searching for."
By the end of the 2012 field season, excavations at the site, named Lomekwi 3, had uncovered 149 stone artifacts tied to tool-making, from stone cores and flakes to rocks used for hammering and others possibly used as anvils to strike on.
The researchers tried knapping stones themselves to better understand how the tools they found might have been made. They concluded that the techniques used “could represent a technological stage between a hypothetical pounding-oriented stone tool use by an earlier hominin and the flaking-oriented knapping behavior of [later] toolmakers." Chimpanzees and other primates are known to use a stone to hammer open nuts atop another stone. But using a stone for multiple purposes, and using one to crack apart another into a sharper tool, is more advanced behavior.
The find also has implications for understanding the evolution of the human brain. The toolmaking required a level of hand motor control that suggests that changes in the brain and spinal tract needed for such activity could have occurred before 3.3 million years ago, the authors said.
“This is a momentous and well-researched discovery," said paleoanthropologist Bernard Wood of George Washington University, who was not involved in the study. “I have seen some of these artifacts in the flesh, and I am convinced they were fashioned deliberately." Wood said he found it intriguing to see how different the tools are from so-called Oldowan stone tools, which up to now have been considered the oldest and most primitive.
Lepre, who has been conducting fieldwork in eastern Africa for about 15 years, said he arrived at the dig site about a week after the discovery. The site is several hours' drive on rough roads from the nearest town, located in a hot, dry landscape he said is reminiscent of Arizona and New Mexico. Lepre collected chunks of sediment from a series of depths and brought them back to Lamont-Doherty for analysis. He and Kent used a bandsaw to trim the samples into sugar cube-size blocks and inserted them into a magnetometer, which measured the polarity of tiny grains of the minerals hematite and magnetite contained in the sediment.
“The magnetics pretty much clinches that the age is something like 3.3 million years old," said Kent, who also is a professor at Rutgers.
Earlier dating work by Lepre and Kent helped lead to another landmark paper in 2011 : a study that suggested Homo erectus , another precursor to modern humans, was using more advanced tool-making methods 1.8 million years ago, at least 300,000 years earlier than previously thought.
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By Jeff Masters, Ph.D.
Tropical Storm Josephine Also No Threat to Land<p>Meanwhile, the season's record-earliest tenth named storm, Tropical Storm Josephine, was also struggling with high wind shear as it traced out a path over the open ocean.</p><p>At 5 a.m. EDT Saturday, Josephine was located about 310 miles east of the northern Leeward Islands, moving west-northwest at 15 mph with top sustained winds at 45 mph. Josephine is expected to bring one to three inches of rain over portions of the northern Leeward Islands, the Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico over the weekend. Josephine will encounter steadily rising wind shear through Monday, peaking at a very high 30 – 35 knots. This high shear is likely to destroy Josephine's circulation by Monday, before the storm can affect any other land areas.</p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://yaleclimateconnections.org/2020/08/tropical-storm-kyle-forms-unlikely-to-affect-land/" target="_blank">Yale Climate Connections</a>. </em><em></em></p>
By Ute Eberle
In May 2017, shells started washing up along the Ligurian coast in Italy. They were small and purple and belonged to a snail called Janthina pallida that is rarely seen on land. But the snails kept coming — so many that entire stretches of the beach turned pastel.
The Ligurian coast has been swept by snails turning its color pastel.
A World Between Worlds<p>The neuston comprises a multitude of weird and wonderful creatures. </p><p>Many, like the Portuguese man-of-war, which paralyzes its prey with venomous tentacles up to 30 meters long, are colored an electric shade of blue, possibly to protect themselves against the sun's UV rays, or as camouflages against predators.</p><p>There are also by-the-wind sailors, flattish creatures that raise chitin shields from the water like sails; slugs known as sea dragons that cling to the water's surface from below with webbed appendages; barnacles that build bubble rafts as big as dinner plates; and the world's only marine insects, a relation of the pond skater.</p><p>They live "between the worlds" of the sea and sky, as Federico Betti, a marine biologist at the University of Genoa, puts it. From below, predators lurk. From above, the sun burns. Winds and waves toss them about. Depending on the weather, their environment may be warm or cool, salty or less so.</p>
Sea snails can make up the neuston.
Velella velella jellyfish living on the surface of the ocean.<p>But now, they face another — manmade — threat from nets designed to catch trash. A project called <a href="https://theoceancleanup.com/" target="_blank">The Ocean Cleanup</a>, run by Dutch inventor Boyan Slat, has raised millions of dollars in donations and sponsorship to deploy long barriers with nets that will drift across the ocean in open loops to sweep up floating garbage. </p>
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Waste collection in the Pacific Ocean heralded by The Ocean Cleanup.<p>The Ocean Cleanup says Helm's concerns are based on "misguided assumptions."</p><p>"It's true that neustonic organisms will be trapped in the barriers," says Gerhard Herndl, professor of Aquatic Biology at the University of Vienna and one of project's scientific advisors. "But these organisms have dangerous lives. They're adapted to high losses because they get washed ashore in storms and they have high reproductive rates. If they didn't, they'd already be extinct."</p><p>Helm says they just don't know how quickly these creatures reproduce, and in any case recovering from passing storm is very different from surviving The Ocean Clean Up's systems which could be in place for years.</p>
Communication Breakdown<p>The Ocean Cleanup invited Helm to a symposium on the topic in December, where both sides presented their points of views and didn't seem to find much common ground. Since then, direct communication between them has stopped, says Helm. "They're not interested in talking to me anymore."</p><p>Both sides agree that much is still unknown about the neuston. But one thing that has been established is that most of the oceans' fish spend part of their lifecycle in the neuston. "More than 90% of marine fish species produce floating eggs that persist on the surface until hatching," Betti says.</p><p>The Ocean Cleanup has undertaken one of the few studies into this ecosystem, collecting data on the neuston on the relative abundance of neuston and floating plastic debris in the eastern North Pacific Ocean during a 2019 expedition to the Pacific Garbage Patch, an area where plastic pollution has accumulated on a vast scale. But it is not yet sharing what it has found. The information was being prepared for publication in an as of yet unspecified journal, probably some time next year, an Ocean Cleanup spokesperson said. </p>
Inshore Solution?<p>Helm believes the best way to tackle the marine plastic problem would be to position the barriers closer to land — across river mouths and bays — to catch garbage before it reaches the sea.</p><p>"Stopping the flow of plastic into the ocean is the most cost-effective — and literally effective — way to ensure that it's not entering our environment," she says. </p><p>As for the plastic already floating in open waters, she does not believe it is worth sacrificing parts of neuston and wants to see more research first. </p><p>The Ocean Cleanup has made barriers across rivers a part of its mission. But it is also going ahead with its original vision of pulling trash from the open water. In late 2018, the project deployed a 600-meter, u-shaped prototype net into the <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/environment-conservation-plastic-oceans/a-54436603" target="_blank">Great Pacific Garbage Patch</a>. </p><p>The system ran into difficulties, failing to retain plastic as hoped, and needing to be brought shore for repairs and a design upgrade, after which Ocean Cleanup says it gathered haul of plastic that it will recycle and resell to help fund future operations.</p><p>Over the next two years, the project hopes to deploy up to 60 such barriers to collect drifting flotsam. Helm isn't the only one concerned about these plans.</p><p><span></span>"We should think twice about every action we take in the sea," Betti says. "In nature, nothing is as easy as we think, and often, we've done a lot of damage while trying to do a good thing."</p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/environment-conservation-plastic-oceans/a-54436603" target="_blank">Deutsche Welle</a>.<a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/r/entryeditor/2646992655#/" target="_self"></a></em><em></em></p>
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