Pierre-Jean Texier / CNRS
Examples of hand axes found in Kenya, which indicate that early humans were using stone hand axes as far back as 1.8 million years ago.
By
updated 8/31/2011 3:35:49 PM ET 2011-08-31T19:35:49

Our human ancestors may have been sophisticated tool users 1.76 million years ago.

Newly discovered hand axes from that period are the oldest examples of the complex Acheulean culture, 350,000 years older than the previous record holders. These ancient tools could affect what we know about humanity's departure from Africa.

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"Anthropologists consider the Acheulean hand axes to be the culture of our ancestor Homo erectus, and we know H. erectus first evolved around 1.8 or 2 million years ago," study researcher Christopher Lepre of Columbia University told LiveScience. "I think most researchers were anticipating that older stone axes would be found." And now they've found them.

Excavating erectus
Multiple examples of these Acheulean hand axes, which were made from chipped volcanic rock from a nearby stream, were found at a site on the shore of Lake Turkana in Kenya. The excavation team, led by Helene Roche from the Universite Paris in France, surveyed five sites in the area and found tools from an older culture of tool use, the Oldowan culture, in varying degrees of sophistication.

"There's not a tremendous amount of diligence that goes into making the Oldowan tools, you can say they are kind of haphazardly made," Lepre said. "It's pretty simple in terms of the makers were bashing stones together to make sharp edges."

The Oldowan tools that the researchers discovered were crude stone flakes, sharpened to the edge. The Archeulean hand axes, on the other hand, have a defined teardrop or oval shape to them. Lepre said this indicates that H. erectus had the ability to conceptualize the size and shape of the tool in their minds, and then reproduce it out of stone.

The ax blades were held in the hand (as opposed to wood-handled axes, a later invention) and were probably used to butcher zebras or giraffes, to smash open bones and scrape hides, or as digging tools to reach vegetables such as potatoes.

Erectus in Europe
The data indicates that there were at least two tool-using hominids living in Africa 1.76 million years ago. Groups of H. erectus were probably using Acheulean technologies, while the more primitive Homo habilis may have been using the Oldowan tools.

What's still a mystery is how these tools left Africa. Acheulean culture and the tools that go with it don't arrive in Europe until about 1 million years ago. It is widely believed that H. erectus colonized Europe more than 1.5 million years ago.

Rhonda L. Quinn
Helene Roche, left, leads archaeological digs in the west Turkana area.

This could indicate one of two things: It's possible that the H. erectus groups that migrated to Europe hadn't developed Acheulean technologies yet, or H. erectus wasn't the species that developed the Acheulean tools. Other hominids living at the time, like H. habilis, could have developed the tools first before the culture eventually spread to H. erectus.

The study appears in Thursday's issue of the journal Nature.

You can follow LiveScience staff writer Jennifer Welsh on Twitter @microbelover. Follow LiveScience for the latest in science news and discoveries on Twitter @livescience  and on Facebook.

© 2012 LiveScience.com. All rights reserved.

Interactive: Before and after humans

Explainer: The world’s 10 smartest animals

  • EBU

    We humans have the ability to learn, to reason and solve problems. We're self-aware, and we're also conscious of the presence, thoughts and feelings of others. We make tools and practice the art of deception. We're creative. We think abstractly. We have language and use it to express complex ideas. All of these are arguably signs of intelligence. Scientists may not agree on the best and fullest definition of intelligence — but they generally agree that humans are highly intelligent.

    Other members of the animal kingdom exhibit signs of intelligence as well, and some scientists might say the definition of animal vs. human intelligence is merely a matter of degree - a point that was brought home in 2005 when the London Zoo put "Homo sapiens" on display in the exhibit pictured here. Click ahead to learn about nine other species that stand out for their smarts.

  • Chimps are almost like us

    Tetsuro Matsuzawa  /  AP

    If we humans possess intelligence, chimpanzees must have some as well: Our genomes are at least 98 percent identical. Chimps make and use tools, hunt in organized groups and engage in acts of violence. Wild troops have distinct behaviors and customs. Field observations and lab experiments show chimps are capable of empathy, altruism and self-awareness. In the experiment pictured here, chimps performed better than humans on a number memory test.

  • Dolphins get creative

    Janet Mann  /  Georgetown University

    This dolphin in Australia uses a sponge to protect her snout when foraging on the seafloor, a tool use behavior that is passed on from mother to daughter. Scientists say that's just one sign of dolphin smarts. Other signs include distinct whistles and clicks that may serve as dolphin names, perhaps used in a type of language. A famous 1960s experiment found that a pair of dolphins entered a tizzy of creativity once they figured out their novel behaviors were rewarded with fish. Frustrated human test subjects just let out a sigh of relief when they caught on to the idea.

  • Elephants exhibit self-awareness

    AP

    The sheer size of their brains suggests that elephants must know a thing or two about the ways of the world. They have been seen consoling family members, helping other species in times of need, playing in water and communicating with one another via vibrations sensed in their feet. A crowning achievement, some researchers say, was when this female Asian elephant named Happy recognized herself in the mirror. The complex behavior is shared only with humans, great apes and dolphins.

  • Cephalopods have big brains

    Binyamin Hochner

    Are octopi, squids and cuttlefish smart? That's a matter of scientific intrigue, but such cephalopods are certainly among the brainiest invertebrates in the sea. The cephalopod brain surrounds the esophagus, but shares with the human brain features of complexity such as folded lobes and distinct regions for processing visual and tactile information. The how-smart debate swirls around deciphering observations that the creatures have a seemingly irrepressible curiosity, a disdain for boredom, an ability to learn and the capacity to use tools. The octopus pictured here exerts precise muscle control to eat.

  • Crows get crafty

    Alex Kacelnik et al.  /  University of Oxford

    Crows are crafty critters: They fashion tools from twigs, feathers and other bits of debris to snare food from hard-to-reach places. A crow named Betty, pictured here, uses a straight wire she bent into a hook to retrieve food from a tube. The birds are born with a tool-making ethic, but they hone their craft by watching their elders, a sign of higher intelligence. Ravens, a type of crow, have even been shown to manipulate the outcomes of their social interactions for added protection and more food.

  • Squirrels can be deceptive

    Gabriel Bouys  /  AFP - Getty Images file

    Is the squirrel pictured here plotting deception? Perhaps. Researchers recently reported that the rodents put on elaborate shows of deceptive caching to thwart would-be thieves. The behavior increased in a lab experiment after squirrels observed humans stealing their peanuts. The researchers called the finding a sign that squirrels can interpret intentions of others, though it could just be a case of learned behavior. Other studies have shown the critters make three-dimensional maps to recall where they cache their nuts. And squirrels in California will cover their fur in the scent of rattlesnakes to mask their own scent from predators.

  • Man's best friend

    University of Vienna

    Are dogs intelligent or just really good at basic obedience? They can learn to sit, lie down and fetch, for example, but can they read their owner's intentions? Research suggests they can at least find food in response to non-verbal cues, a type of understanding that scientists think may be akin to the human ability to understand someone else's point of view. The dog in the experiment pictured here accurately discriminated between photos of dogs and photos of landscapes — an indication the dog was able to form the concept of "dog."

  • Cats are adaptable

    Bob Pennell  /  AP

    Like dog owners, some cat owners have trained their pets to sit down, roll over and jump through hoops. Cats learn the tricks by observation and imitation, egged on with positive reinforcement. But training cats is harder than dogs. Does that mean they are less intelligent? Not necessarily. Cat experts say felines are just different. They are solitary animals, motivated by the need to survive. This has allowed them to adapt to a variety of domestic environments for at least 9,500 years - even the hoods of cars.

  • Pigs are wise ... and clean

    Paulo Whitaker  /  Reuters

    Here's the dirt on pigs: They are perhaps the smartest, cleanest domestic animals known - more so than cats and dogs, according to some experts. But pigs don't have sweat glands, so they roll around in the mud to stay cool. A sign of their cleverness came from experiments in the 1990s. Pigs were trained to move a cursor on a video screen with their snouts and used the cursor to distinguish between scribbles they knew and those they were seeing for the first time. They learned the task as quickly as chimpanzees.

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