While on an excursion in Kenya to the site where a controversial human relative — called Kenyanthropus platyops — was discovered in 1998, a team of archaeologists led by Professor Sonia Harmand, a palaeolithic archaeologist at Stony Brook University in New York, took a wrong turn somewhere. That wrong turn, however, became a lucky break when ancient tools discovered near a lake bed turned out to be the world’s oldest tools ever fashioned.
The tools were discovered in the rocky sediment along the banks of Lake Turkana in Kenya. Some of them were laying on the sand, while other tools were buried in the sedimentary deposit near the lake bed.
The ancient tools had been made by a process called “knapping,” which is a method of shaping stone by chipping away at it with another rock. The team found a total of 20 tools, as well as anvils, which were used to hold the core stone in place, in order to chip away the flakes which would then become the tools.
The archaeologists were able to date the tools by tracking the polarity reversals in the Earth’s magnetic field that is recorded in the sediment over time, and claim that they were made approximately 3.3 million years ago. The reason the discovery of the ancient tools is so important is because LD 350-1, the first instance of a hominin in the Homo genus, only evolved 2.8 million years ago, and up until this recent discovery, it has been believed that the most distinctive characteristic of the Homo genus was the ability to make, and use, tools. The discovery of these stone flakes, however, brings with it the possibility that earlier human ancestors, such as Australopithecines — like Lucy — and Kenyanthropus had the capacity for logical problem solving needed to fashion tools as well.
This discovery also lends credence to another controversial finding from back in 2010. The body of an Australopithecine child was found in Dikika in Ethiopia, and around the child were animal bones with cut marks in them that dated back to 3.4 million years ago. The idea that these cut marks were made by tools in the hands of ancient human ancestors caused waves among the scientific community, with many researchers arguing that the marks were actually made by having been trampled on by humans or animals.
Zeresenay Alemseged, a paleoanthropologist of the California Academy of Sciences, was the leader of the team that found the cut-marked bones in Dikika. Of the ancient tools discovered in Kenya, Alemseged said “with the cut marks from Dikika we had the victim. Harmand’s discovery gives us the smoking gun.”