Archaeologists discover first animal residue on 500k year old stone knife


An Acheulean hand-axe from a 500,000 year old site in Israel.

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.

From HuffPo:

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.



  1. Adrian says:

    {raises hand}

    Consider my interest declared.

    1. AW1Ed says:

      And mine.

  2. Mike L says:

    Did you know that Senator Chuck Schumer just had a news conference saying these deadly instruments of evil need to be banned !

  3. Sam L. says:

    I was reminded of the Alley Oop comic strip; it still exists but the last week seems to have repeating strips.

    Anyway, I’m amazed that any animal remains remained on it, unless it was in a cave.

  4. Sher Khan says:

    More on this topic, please.

  5. sagebrushracer says:

    yes, edged tools are always interesting. from a common VG10 spyderco to hand knapped flint, more please.

  6. Paul on Harsens Island says:

    I’d read more on the subject. Please write more.

  7. cmeat says:

    my wife is a rockhead and this gave us fodder for discussion outside of her disdain for israel’s treatment of palestinians. a refreshing viewpoint from a jewish gal.
    she’s all excited about chalcedonies, cryptocrystalline stuff and jaspers, cherts and quartz flints. or something.
    more please.

    1. First, I appreciate your visits and contributions to the discussions and contests, especially given I have been outspoken in my support for Israel. I am glad that there is enough else at TTAK that has kept you coming back.

      Second, I am definitely going to put together a Lithics 101 series of posts. My knowledge base tapers off greatly after the Neolithic and I know virtually nothing about New world toolmaking.

      If your wife has some background knowledge, please encourage her to write something up for the contest. I am sure I would learn a lot.


      1. cmeat says:

        her identical twin shares your viewpoint. makes for some lively dinner discussions. i don’t recall ttak’s stance, i was sharing a slice of here. i’ll try not to mix knives and politics.
        as far as her stringing together a cohesive diatribe about potassium feldspar, well, I named my fishing boat “waves of lucidity.”

  8. Sam L. says:

    Those knapped rocks were the first Spyderedges.

  9. David says:

    EDC kit for a Massai tribesman definitely has my interests.

    Nerd question here. Is there a reason a band culture (or individual) would go w/ stone instead of bone? Visa Versa?

    “but until evidence was uncovered to prove this, it remained just a theory.”

    Seriously? You mean cave drawings, specimens w/ flint in & around them, and “recent” band cultures that use such tools (plus common sense) was not proof enough?

    1. To address the later part of your comment: Duh. I agree completely.
      I have dug up plenty of bone with butchery marks, I have seen long-bones that bear strike marks from where they were smashed with stone tools to retrieve the marrow.

      Just because they didn’t leave the remains of lunch itself, doesn’t mean we can’t tell the meal.

      Bone tools are very common in the anthropological record dating back 10s of thousands of years.. Unfortunately there is little evidence dating back as far as the paleolithic largely due to preservation conditions. Stone lasts longer than bone. Bone tools are also less likely to leave marks on other bone. Both are useful as a part of an overall toolkit.

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Archaeologists discover first animal residue on 500k year old stone knife

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