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350,000-year stone found in Israel is oldest-known grinding tool found

Archaeologists in Israel have discovered a 350,000-year-old stone tool likely used to grind food and other materials at least 50,000 years before the appearance of Homo sapiens.

350,000-year stone found in Israel is oldest-known grinding tool found
The prehistoric grinding stone found in Tabun Cave, Mount Caramel
[Credit: University of Haifa]

Archaeologists believe the seemingly inconspicuous rock predates the earliest known usage of such tools by some 150,000 years. The discovery was made by researchers from the University of Haifa inside of Tabun Cave, Mount Caramel, in northern Israel. Mount Caramel and its many caves are a UNESCO World Heritage site and have been occupied at various times from about 500,000 years ago.

The latest discovery has been dated to about 50,000 years before the emergence of Homo sapiens in Africa. At the time, our closest hominid relatives were the now-extinct Homo erectus and Homo Homo heidelbergensis.

The tool is a rounded dolomite pebble with microscopic signs of abrasions. Its discovery was published in the January 2021 issue of the Journal of Human Evolution.

The researchers believe the incredible find shows hominids added a "very significant technology" to their toolbox at a very early stage.

Although evidence has been found of hominids using stone tools as far back as 1.5 million years ago, the rocks were used to pound or smash.

The Mount Caramel tool, however, shows signs of abrasion, which may very well be the first time tools were used in a horizontal and not vertical way.

According to Ron Shimelmitz of the University of Haifa's Zinman Institute of Archaeology, the method would have allowed the hominids to process materials much more delicately.

And although the researchers are confident they know how the tool was used, it remains a mystery what the tool was used for.

350,000-year stone found in Israel is oldest-known grinding tool found
Tabun Cave at Mount Caramel in northern Israel [Credit: Nahal Me'arot]

The researchers said: "The small cobble is of immense importance because it allows us to trace the earliest origins of the abrasion action and how cognitive and motor abilities that developed during human evolution eventually evolved into important phenomena in human culture to this day, primarily involving abrasion and development of food production techniques, stationary settlement, agriculture, storage and later an increase in social and economic complexity."

According to Dr Shimelmitz, the sheer simplicity of the tool may have led to researchers overlooking them in the past.

The stone was first picked up by archaeologists in the 1960s and was recently reexamined thanks to a new effort to analyse past findings from the site.

After abrasive marks were spotted on the rock, the researchers collected similar cobbles from the area and rubbed them against various materials for different lengths of time.

They found the resulting marks best matched those on the Tabun Cave rocks when rubbing against animal hides.

Gorman-Yurslavski from the University of Haifa said: "We concluded that the ancient stone was used for the grinding of soft materials, although we do not yet know which ones exactly."

Tabun Cave is one of four caves at Mount Caramel that contain evidence of human evolution spanning half-a-million years.

UNESCO said: "Archaeological evidence covers the appearance of modern humans, deliberate burials, early manifestations of stone architecture and the transition from hunter-gathering to agriculture."

350,000-year stone found in Israel is oldest-known grinding tool found
Stone axes found at Tabun Cave in Israel [Credit: Fæ]

The Mount Caramel discovery has been dated to about 50,000 years before the emergence of Homo sapiens, although the emergence of modern-day humans is a contested issue.

According to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Homo sapiens emerged in Africa during a period of intense climate change 300,000 years ago.

But discoveries made in recent years suggest the species may have emerged tens of thousands of years earlier.

In 2017, excavations at a dig site in Morocco unearthed human remains and stone tools dated between 350,000 and 280,000 years ago.

Some experts estimate modern humans and Neanderthal lineages went their separate ways about 500,000 years ago.

Professor Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum in London explained: "It is likely that different early Homo sapiens populations already existed in different parts of Africa about 300,000 years ago, as well as surviving examples of the more ancient lineages of Homo heidelbergensis (also classified by some as Homo rhodesiensis) in Central Africa and Homo naledi in the South."

Author: Sebastian Kettley | Source: Express [December 27, 2020]

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