Scientists Discover World's Oldest Stone Tools

Finds Challenge Ideas about Who Were the First Toolmakers


Scientists working in the desert badlands of northwestern Kenya have found stone tools dating back 3.3 million years, long before the advent of modern humans, and by far the oldest such artifacts yet discovered. The tools, whose makers may or may not have been some sort of human ancestor, push the known date of such tools back by 700,000 years; they also may challenge the notion that our own most direct ancestors were the first to bang two rocks together to create a new technology.

The discovery is the first evidence that an even earlier group of proto-humans may have had the thinking abilities needed to figure out how to make sharp-edged tools. The stone tools mark “a new beginning to the known archaeological record,” say the authors of a new paper about the discovery, published today in the leading scientific journal Nature.

“The whole site’s surprising, it just rewrites the book on a lot of things that we thought were true,” said geologist Chris Lepre of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and Rutgers University, a co-author of the paper who precisely dated the artifacts.

The tools ”shed light on an unexpected and previously unknown period of hominin behavior and can tell us a lot about cognitive development in our ancestors that we can't understand from fossils alone,” said lead author Sonia Harmand, of the Turkana Basin Institute at Stony Brook University and the Université Paris Ouest Nanterre.

Hominins are a group of species that includes modern humans, Homo sapiens, and our closest evolutionary ancestors. Anthropologists long thought that our relatives in the genus Homo – the line leading directly to Homo sapiens – were the first to craft such stone tools. But researchers have been uncovering tantalizing clues that some other, earlier species of hominin, distant cousins, if you will, might have figured it out.

The researchers do not know who made these oldest of tools. But earlier finds suggest a possible answer: The skull of a 3.3-million-year-old hominin,Kenyanthropus platytops, was found in 1999 about a kilometer from the tool site. A K. platyopstooth and a bone from a skull were discovered a few hundred meters away, and an as-yet unidentified tooth has been found about 100 meters away.

The precise family tree of modern humans is contentious, and so far, no one knows exactly how K. platyops relates to other hominin species. Kenyanthropus predates the earliest known Homo species by a half a million years. This species could have made the tools; or, the toolmaker could have been some other species from the same era, such as Australopithecus afarensis, or an as-yet undiscovered early type of Homo.

Lepre said a layer of volcanic ash below the tool site set a “floor” on the site’s age: It matched ash elsewhere that had been dated to about 3.3 million years ago, based on the ratio of argon isotopes in the material. To more sharply define the time period of the tools, Lepre and co-author and Lamont-Doherty colleague Dennis Kent examined magnetic minerals beneath, around and above the spots where the tools were found.

The Earth’s magnetic field periodically reverses itself, and the chronology of those changes is well documented going back millions of years. “We essentially have a magnetic tape recorder that records the magnetic field … the music of the outer core,” Kent said. By tracing the variations in the polarity of the samples, they dated the site to 3.33 million to 3.11 million years.


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