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Europe’s Oldest Bone Tools Hint at Early Hominin Sophistication

480,000 years ago, Homo heidelbergensis used hammers to fashion flint tools in what is now southern England

Potential human ancestor Homo heidelbergensis used this 480,000-year-old bone hammer to create flint tools. (UCL Institute of Archaeology)
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Some 480,000 years ago, a group of 30 to 40 early hominins met at a rocky gravel pit in what is now southern England for a sumptuous feast. As detailed in a statement, the crowd—equipped with stone hammers and sharpened flint hand axes—gathered around the carcass of a large female horse and started breaking it down, stripping the creature of every ounce of flesh, harvesting its internal organs and even cracking its bones to suck out the fatty marrow.

Now, reports Paul Rincon for BBC News, archaeologists have identified the millennia-old bone tools crafted out of the horse’s remains as the oldest ever found in Europe. Excavations at Boxgrove, a Middle Pleistocene site in West Sussex, unearthed the instruments in the 1980s and ’90s.

Boxgrove’s main claim to fame is a handful of bones thought to be the earliest hominin remains found in England. The remains belonged to Homo heidelbergensis, a hominin species that may have been an ancestor of modern humans.

In total, researchers have cataloged around 1,750 pieces of flint shaped by H. heidelbergensis nearly half a million years ago, writes Matt Pope, an archaeologist at University College London (UCL) who co-authored a new book detailing finds at Boxgrove, for the Conversation.

Flint football
This chunk of flint is made up of more than 100 flint shards collected from around the Boxgrove site and meticulously fit back together by researchers. (UCL Institute of Archaeology)

Pope and his colleagues scoured the site for fragments of discarded flint that flaked away during a specific stone blade’s creation. The resulting oblong jigsaw block—nicknamed “the Football”—is made up of more than 100 flint slivers. To the archaeologists’ chagrin, the tool hewn from the Football was nowhere to be found, though its shape can be inferred by the negative space at the heart of the reconstructed stone.

Per the Conversation, the ancient hominins active at Boxgrove needed bone hammers to make flint blades, as well as other stone tools discovered at the site. Some of the butchered horse’s knee and leg bones bear signs of such use.

“These are some of the earliest non-stone tools found in the archaeological record of human evolution,” says Simon Parfitt, an archaeologist at UCL and co-author of the new book, in the statement. “They would have been essential for manufacturing the finely made flint knives found in the wider Boxgrove landscape.”

Silvia Bello, a paleoanthropologist at the London Natural History Museum who conducted a detailed analysis of the bone artifacts, adds that the Boxgrove tools demonstrate H. heidelbergensis’ understanding of different materials’ properties.

“Along with the careful butchery of the horse and the complex social interaction hinted at by the stone refitting patterns, it provides further evidence that early human population at Boxgrove were cognitively, social and culturally sophisticated,” she says in the statement.

Illustration of early hominins butchering horse
An artist's illustration of the Homo heidelbergensis group that butchered a large horse at the Boxgrove site in southern England (Lauren Gibson)

How the unlucky horse ended up in what was, at the time, an inter-tidal marshland remains murky.

“Horses are highly sociable animals and it's reasonable to assume it was part of a herd, either attracted to the foreshore for fresh water, or for seaweed or salt licks,” Pope tells BBC News. “For whatever reason, this horse—isolated from the herd—ends up dying there.”

Though the horse may have been hunted, researchers have yet to find any evidence confirming this theory, the archaeologist adds.

The horse butchery site’s proximity to the shoreline may explain its extraordinary preservation, Pope tells BBC News. At low tide, the carcass was left exposed, but when the tide came in, it covered the remains in fine, powdery silt and clay, gently freezing the scene in time.

Laser scans mapping the exact position of every artifact allowed the researchers to fully recreate the scene, per the Conversation.

In the statement, Pope says precise mapping of such a pristine site allows scholars “to get as close as we can to witnessing the minute-by-minute movement and behaviors of a single apparently tight-knit group of early humans: a community of people, young and old, working together in a co-operative and highly social way.”

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