I like my headline better than the clickbait headline from HuffPo: “500,000 Year Old ‘Swiss Army’ knife sheds new light on animal butchering“. Mine, while not exciting, represents the archaeologically significant finding. The “Swiss Army” part is the kind of descriptor that gets bounced around in Archaeology 101 classes when describing the ubiquitous “Acheulean Hand Axe” that is attributed to the ancient hominid Homo erectus. I am not surprised that the media picked up on that line.
These tools are the last major development in “core” tools. What I mean by this is that flakes were removed to leave behind a shaped core which was the toolmaker’s ultimate goal. In later, Mousterian tools, flakes of predetermined design are removed from a prepared core, and these flakes represent the actual tool. In my playing around in college and beyond, I can replicate create a hand-axe, but the more complex flake tools are beyond me.
According to the article wear patterns were present on one edge (I’d be curious to know if they were perpendicular (scraping) or parallel to the edge (slicing). Signs of wear use do not surprise me in the least. The fact that they were able for the first time recover animal residue is newsworthy.
Now, researchers who recently analyzed the finds have discovered the tools are covered in animal fat, and are calling them the first direct evidence of the use of stone tools by ancient human ancestors for animal butchery.
“Archaeologists have until now only been able to suggest scenarios about the use and function of such tools. We don’t have a time machine,” Prof. Ran Barkai, an archaeologist at Tel Aviv University’s Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Cultures and one of the researchers, said in a written statement. “It makes sense that these tools would be used to break down carcasses, but until evidence was uncovered to prove this, it remained just a theory.”
After examining the wear on the surface of the tools, and conducting experiments with replicas modeled after them, the researchers believe one of the tools was a hand axe, a sort of prehistoric “Swiss army knife” that could cut and break down bone and tissue.”
The Auchelean hand-axe gets the “Swiss Army” moniker because it has multiple edges which can be useful for various tasks. It is a teardrop shaped tool, with a spike and a thicker belly end. Almost like a pear with a pointy top.
The article makes a big deal of the “first time” aspect, but most of the analysis described is decades old. In the late 90’s, when I was an Archaeology student, one of my professors was studying microscopic wear use patterns on ancient tools and modern replicas that had been used for processing vegetable material and game. Early attempts to recover plant DNA from tools were being attempted at this time.
When I was at the Koobi Fora Field School in Kenya, we were digging up 2.5 million year old fossilized bone with butchery cut marks. The tools used by these Homo habilis hominids were even more simple in design, little more than a river cobble with a half dozen flakes removed from one edge. Both the flakes and the core would be used. Several of us made our own tools and butchered a couple of goats to recreate the process and examine the bones (and make stew).
If I can find my photo album and the time to do so, I will do a couple of posts on Kenya. I have several ideas including a primer on the first 3 million years of stone knife history (my archaeological wheelhouse), and a piece on the EDC kit for a Massai tribesman. I might go back and add a few photographs to this post.
Our beloved leader Emeritus, Chris Dumm sent me this link this morning, and it seemed like something interesting to write about. I will take you further down the rabbit hole of ancient stone tools if there is interest. Let me know.