Tools Weren’t Invented in Europe, They Were Carried There 50,000 Years Ago

Analysis of shells and human bones from a site in Lebanon suggests modern tools were in use

Snail shells found in Lebanon indicate humans were using modern tools before they reached Europe Image courtesy of Marjolein Bosch

The phrase "Stone Age" may conjure images of early humans wearing animals skins and hunting large mammals with the relatively advanced tools they shaped. But researchers are now learning that those tools — stones chipped to cut and bones shaped to scrap —  weren’t invented in Europe, as some proposed

For Nature, Andrew Curry writes about the analysis of snail shells and the remains of two humans found in Lebanon at a site called Ksâr ‘Akil. This is one of the few places where modern human fossils can be found that date back to the time period researchers estimate the migration from African into Europe took place, 500,000 to 400,000 years ago.

The research team was able to deduce that one of the humans lived at least 45,900 years ago.

“Our new radiocarbon dates are older than any modern-human remains in Europe, suggesting that, on their way out of Africa, these groups of humans came through the Levant and colonized Eurasia from there,” researcher Marjolein Bosch of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, told Curry. 

The team also determined that the shells found among the remains showed the effects of tool use — their tops had been sliced off so that people could extract the flesh within. This finding indicates that these groups of humans were carrying surprisingly modern tools with them. Tools similar to those used to extract the snails have been found in Europe and in other sites in the Levant, but they are younger.

The two humans, individuals posthumously dubbed Egbert and Ethelruda, were originally found in the 1930s and 1940s. Dating the remains took so long because the bones were so old that gathering enough organic material for radiocarbon dating was tricky. It’s a problem that plagues dating archeological finds from ancient times. However, the research team backed up their findings by dating the snail shells as well, which fell into the same time period. They published their results in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The new findings make sense given that the earliest stone tools were even more ancient than previously thought. A discovery in Kenya revealed chipped stones that were shaped 3.3 million years ago — even before the Homo genus arose