Geologists Stumble Upon 1.2-million-year-old Stone Tool That Rewrites Migration of Man

Oldest tool ever found in Turkey is evidence that Homo erectus was alive and kicking in the region back then.

Royal Holloway University of London

A pinkish stone found by sheer luck in river deposits is the oldest-known tool made by man ever found in Turkey, dating back about 1.2 million years.

The tool is tentatively identified with Homo erectus, which is believed to have started spreading from Africa to Eurasia some two million years ago.

The only other find of Homo erectus in Asia, a skull in the Kocabas quarry, dates to much later. The quartz flake the team found pushes back the date of Homo erectus’s proven existence in the region by hundreds of thousands of years.

“It is not so much the artifact itself, which is a simple but clearly humanly struck flake, but the dating of the find that is critical,” Danielle Schreve of the Royal Holloway University of London told Haaretz in an email.

Cutting hides or meat

The artifact is about 5.6 centimeters by 4.4 centimeters (2.2 inches by 1.7 inches) and is made of quartz crystal.

It is not the oldest tool made by hominins. Simple pebble-like tools dating back 2.6 million years have been found in Africa’s Gona river system, in the Afar triangle, part of the Great Rift Valley.

Separately, rather more sophisticated stone axes and picks were found close by, dating back 1.8 million years. Chopping tools also dating back some 1.8 million years were found in Dmanisi, Georgia.

But the stone tool found in ancient fluvial deposits of the river Gediz, in western Turkey, going back 1.2 million years, is the oldest found in that part of the world.

The stone was serendipitously discovered by a joint English, Turkish and Dutch team doing a geological study. It was dated painstakingly, based on lava flows before and after the event of the primitive man dropping the instrument.

What the tool was used for is anybody’s guess. It’s just the one flake, but when it was struck, it would have had razor-sharp edges. It might have been used, as we know other flakes were, for cutting hides, meat or even plant materials, Schreve says.

How certain can we be that it is indeed man-made?

“We do not deal in certainty but it is highly probable that this is worked by hand,” explains Professor Darrel Maddy, a geologist at Newcastle University, by email to Haaretz.

“There are features which suggest prior flaking, and there is a clear bulb of percussion. Multiple flaking is highly unlikely in a natural flaking process except in high energy environments – which this is not.”

The team spent years looking at the Gediz gravels and saw no clast resembling this particular artifact, he adds. This lends more probability to the stone being man-made rather than the result of a natural process. The gravels in the area contain a lot of quartz but their fracture characteristics are different.

The team didn’t find other stone tools, but then they hadn’t been systematically looking for any, Maddy says. This find was serendipitous.

The dispersion of man

As for man’s dispersion, theories about it have been evolving a lot faster than the being itself.

The conventional wisdom is that Homo erectus began leaving Africa around 2 million years ago (though some think Homo erectus actually evolved in Asia, not Africa). Then Homo antecessor, an extinct and very strange-looking human species or subspecies with a low brow and big eyes, migrated from Africa to Eurasia 1.2 million to 800,000 years ago. (Some think the earliest human remains in Europe are antecessors, and some postulate based on bone markings that they practiced cannibalism.)

Then came the migration of Homo heidelbergensis, which is widely believed to be ancestor to both Neanderthals and modern man, around 600,000 years ago.

In any case, Turkey and specifically the Anatolia region are at the “gateway from Asia into Europe and have frequently been favored as a route for Early Pleistocene hominin dispersal,” the team writes in their paper, published in Quaternary Science Reviews.

And now this stone suggests that somebody who knew how to make a hammer out of quartzite rock was wandering around Anatolia 1.2 million years ago.

“There are a handful of sites in southern Europe (Spain, Italy, southern France) that have produced artifacts dating to around 1.2 million years,” Schreve says.

“However, the dating of these sites is very controversial in many cases, or the stone tools are not clearly associated with the dated deposits, which makes it difficult to make meaningful observations as to the timing and route of dispersal of early humans. The unique quality of the Turkish find is that it can be dated quite precisely, coming from river sediments sandwiched between volcanic deposits.”

So, “the new evidence from the Gediz River really firms up our knowledge of when early hominins crossed the area. It’s only when we have a decent chronology in place that we can begin to ask more searching questions of the archaeological record,” Schreve sums up.

These questions would be well asked following further investigation of the site - but that appears unlikely to happen soon.

“This artifact was a chance find which we recorded and left in Turkey,” Maddy writes. “Archaeological excavation is impossible at this locality in any case.”