Tiny Stone Tools Show Humans Hunted in the Rainforest 45,000 Years Ago

A ‘toolkit’ found in Sri Lanka adds to growing evidence that early humans inhabited many ecosystems, not just open grasslands

Tiny Stone Tools
PLOS One/Wedage et. al.

A large assemblage of tiny stone tools found in Sri Lanka that date back 45,000 years suggest that not only were humans hunting prey within dense jungles earlier than previously believed, but that they also were in possession of tools that allowed them to occupy and survive in many different habitats.

For the new study, which appears in the journal PLOS One, a team from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany took a closer look at the tools, or microliths, found in Fa-Hien Lena cave in Sri Lanka.

Humans are believed to have occupied the cave in Sri Lanka about 41,000 years ago, and only abandoned it about 4,000 years ago. The microliths found in the cave are oldest ever found in south Asia.

As Isaac Schultz at Atlas Obscura writes, the stone tools needed to hunt and process the types of arboreal monkeys and squirrels found in the jungle are smaller than the weighty hand-axes needed to process large savanna animals like antelope.

“They are seen as being highly flexible toolkits that enabled humans to survive in a variety of different environments, hunting very different animals and using very different plants,” archaeologist Patrick Roberts, a co-author of the new study, tells Schultz.

To better understand the stone tools, the team analyzed pieces ranging in age from 45,000 to 48,000 years. The team also recreated their production methods, confirming that the objects were indeed tools and not just naturally occurring stones. “We found clear evidence for the production of ‘miniaturised’ stone tools or ‘microliths’ at Fa-Hien Lena, dating to the earliest period of human occupation,” lead author Oshan Wedage explains in a press release.

The ancient tools are similar to tools used by Sri Lankan rainforest cultures just 4,000 years ago, meaning that almost as soon as humans moved to the island, they had to the right tools to create a long-term sustainable culture in the rainforest.

According to the recent paper, the microliths are similar to those found in sub-Saharan Africa, East Africa, Europe, the Mediterranean and northern and eastern Asia. The appearance of these microlith “toolkits” in various environments around the globe supports the idea that humans didn’t avoid certain habitats, but had the tools and skills to adapt to many different types of homes.

“Significantly, microliths were clearly a key part of the flexible human ‘toolkit’ that enabled our species to respond–and mediate–dynamic cultural, demographic, and environmental situations as it expanded over nearly all of the Earth’s continents during the Late Pleistocene, in a range currently not evident among other hominin populations,” the team writes.

In a separate paper published on the cave earlier this year, researchers reported discovering 15,000 animal bones in the cave, most from monkeys and squirrels. For Smithsonian.com, Lorraine Boissoneault reported at the time that researchers hoped to find similar evidence from the rainforests in Africa, which would likely predate even the Sri Lanka tools.

Conducting archaeological digs in rainforests is tough business, with researchers facing dangerous insects and animals, disease, tough living conditions and unstable political situations. Still, Roberts, who was involved in both papers, was hopeful. “I would be very surprised if we don’t find evidence for humans in tropical rain forests very early on,” he said.

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