Chipped stones and cut bones show early hominin presence in North Africa

Christopher Davidson
December 2, 2018

New evidence strongly suggests that ancient humans occupied Northern Africa more than half a million years earlier than previously thought, adding a new chapter to the ever-changing story of our evolution.

An global team led by professor Mohamed Sahnouni and including scientists from Algeria, Spain, France and Australia, published their work on Friday. They also analyzed the animal bones found alongside the tools, identifying species of now extinct elephants, mastodons, horses, and pigs as well as antelopes, rhinos, hyenas, and crocodiles. Such implements appear to have spread from East Africa earlier than scientists first thought.

East Africa is widely considered to be the birthplace of stone tool use by our ancient hominin ancestors - the earliest examples of which date as far back as about 2.6 million years ago.

The oldest-known instruments are the Oldowan stone tools from Ethiopia, which date back about 2.6 million years.

'The Ain Boucherit archaeology, which is technologically similar to the Gona Oldowan, shows that our ancestors ventured into all corners of Africa, not just East Africa, ' says Dr. M. Sahnouni, the lead author and director of the Ain Hanech Project. Evidence for the actual butchery of animals in East Africa is not as strong, Plummer, who was not involved in the study, told Science's news website. "It is not clear at this moment whether they hunted, but the evidence clearly shows that they were successfully competing with carnivores and enjoyed first access to animal carcasses". About two dozen animal bones have cut marks that show they were skinned, defleshed, or pounded for marrow.

The tools are too old to have been made by Homo sapiens - modern man - and no remains of other hominins have been found, so it's unclear which branch of the early human family was using the tools.

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Sahnouni et al. uncovered the artifacts at the site of Ain Boucherit, located in the High Plateaus of eastern Algeria, from two distinct strata estimated to be about 1.9 and 2.4 million years-old.

About 50,000 years ago more refined and specialised flint tools were made and used by Neanderthals and it is believed it was at this stage tools were constructed out of bone.

"Based on the potential of Ain Boucherit and the adjacent sedimentary basins, we suggest that hominin fossils and Oldowan artifacts as old as those documented in East Africa could be discovered in North Africa as well".

Alternatively, it could mean that a "rapid expansion of stone tool manufacture" took place in the early days of humankind's existence. Nearby, just 200,000 years later, scientists have found simple tools, such as thumb-size stone flakes, and fist-size cores from which such flakes were struck, in the nearby Rift Valley of Ethiopia.

"Future research will focus on searching for human fossils in the nearby Miocene and Plio-Pleistocene deposits, looking for the tool-makers and even older stone tools", said Sahnouni.

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