A 350,000-year-old Turning Point in Human Evolution Found in Israel

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
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The dolomite abrading stone from the Tabun Cave, south of Haifa, Dec 2020
The dolomite abrading stone from the Tabun Cave, south of Haifa. This particular rock stood out among the tens of thousands of knapped stone tools found there, the University of Haifa team says.Credit: Iris Groman-Yaroslavski
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

A turning point in human evolution has been identified through reanalysis of a single stone tool found in Tabun Cave in northern Israel, from about 350,000 years ago. It had been used not to bash animals or butcher their carcasses but to abrade soft material, possibly animal hides, much earlier in human evolution than had been thought, say Ron Shimelmitz, Iris Groman-Yaroslavski, Mina Weinstein-Evron and Danny Rosenberg from the Zinman Institute of Archaeology at the University of Haifa.

Grinding and abrading (scraping) had only been thought to have developed much later, Shimelmitz explains to Haaretz. “The entire engagement in this technology is much later, around 200,000 years ago,” he says.

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Yes, based on one tool, this discovery, reported in the Journal of Human Evolution, changes our thinking about part of our deep technological evolution.

Abrading stones abound in Africa and Europe starting about 200,000 years ago, from which point there was more frequent evidence of that technology, explains Shimelmitz, an expert in the evolution of technology. But it is also true that given that assumption, archaeologists hadn’t necessarily been looking for such artifacts at earlier sites – for one thing, they’re very hard to identify. “You need to look for them,” he adds.

You can fairly easily identify a knapped stone, especially the likes of arrowheads or spear points and especially when they’re made of flint – a stone widely preferred because it’s so hard. They look quite unnatural. It is, conversely, not trivial to identify an abrading or grinding stone, which looks like … a stone.

However, the authors point out that this particular piece of dolomite stood out among the tens of thousands of knapped stone tools found in Tabun Cave, located on the Mount Carmel range south of Haifa, from various periods of occupation. And they concluded that it wasn’t just any chalky rock, but a tool, through microscopic use-wear analysis, including examination of the patterns on the cobble’s surface, which were compared with known naturally weathered surfaces.

The Tabun Cave, in the Carmel range south of Haifa, where the abrading stone was foundCredit: Ron Shimelmitz

“The importance of this technology [abradement] hadn’t been on the table regarding the ancient world,” Shimelmitz says. And why was the invention of abrading a crucial turning point? “Because that’s the way of humankind,” he explains. “To shape materials and our environment, to improve our adaptation to situations. The tools are external to our bodies and enable us to do things we couldn’t do without them. Abradement is another significant technology within our possibility to adapt the environment. It appeared relatively late in human evolution; we thought very late; and now we show that its roots are deeper. We need to open our eyes wider.”

Asked why, actually, abrading was so significant to our evolution, he brings the example of hides. You can’t just skin an animal and comfortably wear its pelt. It is better to scrape off the fat and muscle remains, and soften the hide by abrading – a precursor to proper tanning – than to strut around garbed in decaying aurochs.

Does this mean the abrasion-stone of Tabun indicates there was a Middle Stone Age fashion? Not necessarily. The use-wear experiments conducted on the ground-breaking stone indicate that it was used on soft material (as opposed to bone, for instance), but not which soft material. It could have been hides used for clothing, or might not have been.

Great leaps forward

Usage of stone tools goes back at least 3.3 million years, well before modern humans were even a gleam in the eye of evolution. The first tools were large, crude hammers. Over the ages, as hominins gained sophistication, tool manufacture and use became more finely developed.

But throughout the period loosely known as the Early Stone Age, usage was confined to vertical motions: striking, battering and pounding, and then using knapped stones as knives – as the researchers put it, applying a thin or narrow working edge of the stone tool.

Tourists visiting the prehistoric caves on the Carmel range south of HaifaCredit: Rami Shllush

In any case abradement, now known to have begun at least 350,000 years ago, is a precursor to a game-changer in human behavior and evolution: grinding grain.

“Grinding grain comes much later, nearer the modern time and not the prehistoric time,” Shimelmitz qualifies. “That’s the end of the process. But this was a significant addition to the human tool chest.” We note that mortars used possibly to grind grain have been found in Neolithic sites in Israel, from over 10,000 years ago.

The discovery of abrading in the Middle Pleistocene, which requires applying a wide working surface of the tool by means of sequential horizontal motions to modify or reduce the target surfaces of a materia,l rather than banging or stabbing at it, fits in with the bigger figure of huge strides among early hominin abilities to harness technology to shape their environment, the team explains.

Asked to elaborate, Shimelmitz points to two key behaviors that developed during that span – one being a leap forward in the use of fire.

It remains an open question when fire was “tamed” – in the sense that archaic humans could help themselves to a burning bush in order to roast their dinner – and when our ancestors achieved “control of fire,” meaning they could ignite it at will. At sites dating to the Middle Pleistocene there is a giant step up in the discovery of purposely burned stuff, he say. One of those sites, by the way, is Tabun itself. 

Knapped flint tools, which are easier to distinguish from natural rocks than the abrading stoneCredit: Gil Eliahu

Another marked change in behavior is that during the Middle Pleistocene, hominins seem to have developed the concept of base camps, meaning a place they were leaving and coming back to every day (where they could curl up by their fire). Base camp and fire became a way of life during the Middle Stone Age, Shimelmitz  says.

Asked if the upswing in intensity of occupation doesn’t mean “home,” Shimelmitz agrees that one could see it that way. And this intensification also speaks to socialization and group structure. There is a reason early humans would return to their base camp every day. “This was a period of intense change in the behavior of humankind,” he sums up.

Israel has apparently been on the migration route for the human species for almost two million years. While solid evidence of hominin migration that far back is sparse, it has been demonstrated that the environmental conditions in the key region of the Negev desert were hospitable at the time, and hominin remains going back hundreds of thousands of years, as well as modern human remains, abound in this area. It begs qualifying that the study by Shimelmitz and his colleagues reevaluated previous discoveries at Tabun Cave, which had been used by hominins for hundreds of thousands of years, as of the early Stone Age. The cave was first explored by the famed British archaeologist Dorothy Garrod in the 1930s.

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At the end of the day, this is less a story about one rock found around 150,000 years earlier than had been expected, and more a story about what the artifact represents – how deep abrading behavior, a totally different form of tool use, goes back in time.

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