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Ancient Hominids Used These 250,000-Year-Old Tools for Butchery

Traces of blood on the prehistoric tools, suggest our ancestors had a much more varied diet than once thought

An ancient stone tool used to butcher a rhinoceros. (April Nowell)
smithsonian.com

Tens of thousands of years before the first Homo sapien walked the Earth, ancient hominids already stalked prey across the deserts of modern-day Jordan. As they migrated from their ancestral homelands in Africa, these early humans left behind trails of trash that are now providing archaeologists with new insights into how they lived their lives. Now, a cache of 250,000-year-old stone tools is giving scientists a glimpse at how varied our ancestors' tastes actually were.

From meat-eaters to vegans, modern humans have evolved to be omnivores, consuming a variety of plants and animals. While our ancient ancestors have always had a rare ability to make use of whatever resources came their way, scientists have long thought that earlier human species tended to be more specialized in what they ate, Sarah Kaplan reports for the Washington Post.

"The way you would exploit or take down a rhino is going to be very different from how you would obtain a duck," University of Victoria archaeologist April Nowell tells Kaplan. "[It] really does take a lot of cognitive sophistication, and a lot of social sophistication."

However, while excavating a prehistoric wetland in the Jordanian desert, Nowell and her colleagues stumbled across a curious find that sheds new light on what our ancestors ate. The old oasis near the town of Azraq, Jordan contained thousands of stone artifacts, some dating back 250,000 years, Alex Swerdloff writes for Munchies

"On a lot of archaeological sites you’ll have stone tools, and you’ll have bones, and in rare cases you’ll have bones that have been cut marks on them from the stone tools, and you can make some logical assumptions about what happened," Nowell tells Kaplan. But these latest tools had additional evidence: they were covered in animal proteins that strongly suggest they were used by ancient humans to butcher their prey.

In the past, archaeologists have been able to identify ancient traces of animal blood on prehistoric artifacts by analyzing them for proteins. In those cases, though, even the oldest samples tests were hundreds of thousands of years younger than the tools Nowell and her team dug up. When one of Nowell’s colleagues suggests running those tests on their discoveries, she was skeptical that it would work, Laura Lynch reports for the CBC. However, not only did they discover the remains of ancient animals on the tools, but it appears each one was used on a different beast, indicating that our ancestors had a much more varied diet than scientists once thought.

Of the 44 tools they sampled, 17 tested positive for animal proteins from ducks, horses, camels and rhinoceri, to name a few. According to Nowell, these tools were likely used to butcher the animals once they had been caught and killed, then thrown away like a disposable knife, Swerdloff writes. As these hunters were likely some of the earliest humans to venture out from their African homelands, it suggests that Homo sapiens’ adaptability started earlier than scientists once thought.

"When you think about the story of human evolution, it's really the story of the generalist,” Nowell tells Lynch. “In order to survive as well as we have and occupy all parts of the planet, practically, we've had to adapt and learn to eat anything and everything we can get our hands on.”

About Danny Lewis

Danny Lewis is a multimedia journalist working in print, radio, and illustration. He focuses on stories with a health/science bent and has reported some of his favorite pieces from the prow of a canoe. Danny is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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