The shores of Kenya’s Lake Victoria have provided researchers with a glimpse into the past, uncovering some of the oldest butchery tools ever found.
Even 2.9 million years ago, early human ancestors needed to eat. And without the equipment afforded to the butchers of today, they had to use what was on hand to prepare their food.
New research from scientists at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and Queens College, along with the National Museum of Kenya, Liverpool John Moores University and the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, has found stone tools that the researchers believe our ancestors used to butcher hippos and pound plant material.
The stone-age innovation, known to scientists as the Oldowan toolkit, provides a window into what life was like almost three million years ago.
The stone tools were found along the shores of Lake Victoria in Kenya, at a site called Nyayanga, and were discovered alongside molar teeth belonging to the close human evolutionary species, Paranthropus.
“The teeth are the oldest fossilised Paranthropus remains yet found, and their presence at a site loaded with stone tools raises intriguing questions about which human ancestor made those tools,” Rick Potts, senior author of the study and the National Museum of Natural History Peter Buck chair of human origins, said.
“The assumption among researchers has long been that only the genus Homo, to which humans belong, was capable of making stone tools.
“But finding Paranthropus alongside these stone tools opens up a fascinating whodunnit.”
The tools were found over 800 miles (1287km) from the previously known oldest examples of Oldowan stone tools, which were found in Ledi-Geraru, Ethiopia.
Analysis of the wear patterns on the tools and the animal bones uncovered nearby has shown that the tools were used to produce a wide variety of food from plants to bone marrow.
Oldowan toolkits encompass three types of tools: hammerstones, cores and flakes.
Used for hitting other rocks to create tools, hammerstones were the backbone of the toolkit. Without them, cores and flakes couldn’t be made.
Cores would typically have an oval shape and would be struck at an angle with the hammerstone to split off a piece called a flake which would be used for cutting or scraping.
“With these tools you can crush better than an elephant’s molar can and cut better than a lion’s canine can,” Potts said. “Oldowan technology was like suddenly evolving a brand-new set of teeth outside your body, and it opened up a new variety of foods on the African savannah to our ancestors.”
Excavations at Nyayanga began in 2015 and returned more than 300 artefacts and 1000 animal bones, as well as two hominin molars.
The team at the site found the bones of at least three individual hippos, with some bones showing signs of butchery and cuts, and antelope bones that showed evidence of flesh being sliced away with flakes.
The tools found were a significant upgrade to those previously found in Ethiopia.
As our hominin ancestors migrated across Africa and into other parts of the world, the tools went with them, reaching as far as modern-day Georgia and China.
These tools stood the test of time and were not meaningfully replaced until 1.7 million years ago, when hand-axes first appeared.
Fire had yet to be harnessed at the time the toolmakers were using the stone tools, so all food was eaten raw, perhaps after pounding the meat into easier-to-chew pieces with the hammerstone.
“This is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, examples of Oldowan technology,” researcher Thomas Plummer said. “This shows the toolkit was more widely distributed at an earlier date than people realised, and that it was used to process a wide variety of plant and animal tissues.
“We don’t know for sure what the adaptive significance was, but the variety of uses suggests it was important to these hominins.”