Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Oldest Stone Tools Show Intelligence Pre-Dates Humans

Olduvai Gorge, Kenya
World’s oldest stone tools discovered in Kenya | Science/AAAS | News

Humans are known to science as Homo sapiens, or 'thinking man' partly because the thing which we used to believe distinguished us from other species was out ability to make tools, which was considered a unique skill indicating high intelligence.

That view has of course been under sustained attack for decades now ever since chimpanzees were seen to be making and using tools to collect termites. Since then, several other animals have been shown to use tools and crows have been shown to solve complex problems by making specially designed tools. Now we have evidence of something that has been suspected for some time - that tool-making was something that we inherited from our pre-hominid ancestors, the Australopithecines. Previously, what looked like cut marks on 3.4 million year-old bone associated with A. afarensis ('Lucy') were highly suggestive of sharp tools but the oldest definite tools were only 2.6 million years old.

Now a team led by archaeologist Sonia Harmand of Stony Brook University, New York has found numerous stone tools at the Lomekwi 3 site, near Lake Turkana in Kenya, about 1000 kilometers from Olduvai Gorge. The claim is that these are 3.3 million years old, which would place them well before the Homo genus first appeared.

Olduvai Gorge has been a special interest to me ever since I was a young teenager and had been befriended by the late Professor Sir Wilfred Le Gros Clarke - one of the team who proved the Piltdown forgery and leading palaeoanthropologist of his day - and his wife Lady Freeda. I had met Sir Wilfred and his wife when delivering their Sunday papers when he stayed at a friends cottage in the village where I lived. He later had a house built in the village and retired there. He was fascinated by my interest in nature and science in general and was impressed when I told him why I thought dogs and badgers were related because of similarities in their skulls and teeth - which I happened to have in my skull collection.

Paranthropus boisei
There had been a story in the news some time earlier about the discovery of what was thought to be the oldest known human ancestor, by Louis and Mary Leakey in Olduvai Gorge - a species he had named Zinjanthropus boisei or 'nutctacker man' - dated at about 1.75 million years old. One reason this was such a big news item was that there was still serious debate about whether humans evolved in Africa or Asia. By then, no-one seriously considered Europe or the Middle East to be the birthplace of humans.

When I delivered their papers one Sunday, Lady Freda invited me in to 'meet someone'. Being a desperately shy kid and way outside my comfort zone with their 'posh' friends and because they had a house rule that you left your shoes at the door, fearing I might have smelly feet, I muttered something about having lots of papers to deliver and hurriedly departed.

I later learned that the person she wanted me to meet was Louis Leakey who had brought his famous fossil to show Sir Wilfred and had stayed with them for the weekend. He had it there ready to show me because Sir Wilfrid had told him I would be interested in it. Had I gone in I would have been one of the first few people outside Africa to have seen the fossilised skull of Paranthropus boisei (as it was later renamed) at that time. It would also have been the first time I had seen a genuine fossilised skull of any description, let alone a hominid one. I could still kick myself.

Anyway, enough about my formative years.

The significance of these tools is, of course, that it's yet another assault on the arrogant notion that modern humans are the only intelligent species. Not only are there many other sentient species, some of which are capable of planning and making tools, but we now know tool-making evolved in our pre-hominid ancestors and was probably used by one which may not even have been in our direct ancestry, suggesting an earlier common ancestor at least had the potential for tool making, even if they never made stone tools as such - wooden tools don't leave much archaeological evidence.

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