Stone Tools From 800,000 Years Ago Show Advanced Planning, Archaeologist Says

We don't know who lived by the Jordan River 800,00 years ago but new book suggests they may have had command of language

Noa Shpigel
Noa Shpigel
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Tools of members of the Acheulian culture.
Tools of members of the Acheulian culture. Credit: Gil Eliyahu
Noa Shpigel
Noa Shpigel

Hominins were more advanced around 800,000 years ago than is usually thought, according to the fourth book about the Gesher Benot Yaakov archaeological site along the Jordan River, released now by the scientific publisher Springer.

Homo sapiens hadn't even begun to evolve yet: the latest thinking is that modern humans began to arise half a million years ago, in Africa. However, other forms of primitive humans thronged in Africa and Eurasia, and in what would become Israel, and the pre-sapiens residents of Gesher Benot Yaakov were making distinctive oval and pear-shaped stone axes and other tools that characterize the "Acheulian culture". 

In fact hominins have been manufacturing stone tools for at least 3.3 million years, but the Acheulian culture manifests abilities that may imply other higher abilities than previously thought, the authors say.

The book covers more than 30 years of research. Gonen Sharon, an archaeology professor at Tel-Hai Academic College, wrote it with Dr. Nira Alperson-Afil and Gadi Herzlinger. Sharon is a student of Prof. Naama Goren-Inbar from Hebrew University, who led the study.

“The cognitive abilities were much higher than what was previously thought by researchers of that early era,” Sharon says, which has implications for the complexity of their activities and forward planning. 

Acheulian-type tools are chiseled on both sides. Sharon for one thinks that to make these tools, the manufacturers would have had language, and possibly a sense of aesthetic, given the effort to make the implements symmetrical. "These are technologically complex steps that we usually attribute only to much more modern humans," Sharon says.

From England to China

The oldest known Acheulian sites are in Africa and date to 1.8 million years ago. The Acheulian civilization is defined to have ended around 250,000 years ago, by which time the techniques had spread throughout Africa and Eurasia, even reaching England and China.

“For almost a million years these people manufactured similar tools – hand-held stones and stone cleavers, but some development can be identified, and the period can be divided into stages," says Sharon. "The Bnot Yaakov Bridge site belongs to the middle of this era, characterized by large stone chips.

Earlier tools were simpler: basically the same types of implement, formed with more primitive technology, he says. “At our sites, tools from the next stage were found, formed by using a more advanced and sophisticated technology; more efficiently using larger chips extracted from huge volcanic rocks weighing dozens of kilograms.”

Prof. Gonen Sharon presents cutting tools at Tel-Hai Academic college, December 2018. Credit: Gil Eliyahu

Similar tools, in shape and size, have been found from India to South Africa. Naturally the manufacturers used different types of rock in different ways to achieve the same results.

Sharon believes that to make such tools, the hominins would have to know their surroundings "really well," including the characteristics of rock types, and be acquainted with the correct and most effective technology for manufacturing: "You have to plan several stages ahead. In terms of human achievements, this was the pinnacle,” he says.

At Gesher Benot Yaakov, the manufacturers used volcanic basalt, though it is hard to work with. Sharon suspects they brought this habit with them out of Africa.

Excavation of just 20 square meters took froom 1989 to 1997, in part because of the rich pickings. Tens of thousands of flint, limestone and basalt tools were found. 

Prof. Goren-Inbar says these tools attest to the complexity of material culture at the time. “Things were not done randomly – you knew in advance that you wanted to hunt an elephant and then produced the basalt tools required for chopping it up,” she says. “The book tells the story of this material culture.”

The earlier books in the series discussed the flora in the area and the use of fire at the site, the earliest instance of this outside Africa. The third book dealt with midsize and large animals in the area. The fourth book is the result of the work of hundreds of people, led by Goren-Inbar.

“The first question we’re asked is what kind of human lived here. We don’t really know from the biological perspective,” Sharon admits. “The only remains from this period are three teeth from a site south of Lake Kinneret, as well as the top of a skull from a nearby site and 10 teeth from a cave in central Israel. The information you can glean from such early bones about the lives of these humans is limited."