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Date: August 08, 2016

UVic-led archaeology team makes world-first discovery about early use of stone age tools

How smart were human-like species of the Stone Age? New research published in the Journal of Archaeological Science by a team led by paleoanthropologist April Nowell of the University of Victoria reveals surprisingly sophisticated adaptations by early humans living 250,000 years ago in a former oasis near Azraq, Jordan.

The research team from UVic and partner universities in the US and Jordan (see backgrounder for list of co-authors) has found the oldest evidence of protein residue—the residual remains of butchered animals including horse, rhinoceros, wild cattle and duck—on stone tools. The discovery draws startling conclusions about how these early humans subsisted in a very demanding habitat, thousands of years before Homo sapiens first evolved in Africa.
IMG_613: Blade. Image: Courtesy of April Nowell.
Image: One of the stone tools (a blade that tested positive for rhino residue). Image: Courtesy of April Nowell.

The team excavated 10,000 stone tools over three years from what is now a desert in the northwest of Jordan, but was once a wetland that became increasingly arid habitat 250,000 years ago. The team closely examined 7,000 of these tools, including scrapers, flakes, projectile points and hand axes (commonly known as the “Swiss army knife” of the Paleolithic period), with 44 subsequently selected as candidates for testing. Of this sample, 17 tools tested positive for protein residue, i.e. blood and other animal products.

“Researchers have known for decades about carnivorous behaviours by tool-making hominins dating back 2.5 million years, but now, for the first time, we have direct evidence of exploitation by our Stone Age ancestors of specific animals for subsistence,” says Nowell. “The hominins in this region were clearly adaptable and capable of taking advantage of a wide range of available prey, from rhinoceros to ducks, in an extremely challenging environment.”
IMG_8: Nowell in Madaba_2009. Credit: Michael Bisson.
Image: Nowell, excavating in Madaba, Jordan (2009). Credit: Michael Bisson.

“What this tells us about their lives and complex strategies for survival, such as the highly variable techniques for prey exploitation, as well as predator avoidance and protection of carcasses for food, significantly diverges from what we might expect from this extinct species,” continues Nowell. “It opens up our ability to ask questions about how Middle Pleistocene hominins lived in this region and it might be a key to understanding the nature of interbreeding and population dispersals across Eurasia with modern humans and archaic populations such as Neanderthals.”

Another result of this study is the potential to revolutionize what researchers know about early hominin diets. “Other researchers with tools as old or older than these tools from sites in a variety of different environmental settings may also have success when applying the same technique to their tools, especially in the absence of animal remains at those sites,” adds Nowell.

This research was fully funded by a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.
IMG_10: Al-Souliman, Beller and John Murray in Azraq_2015. Credit: Courtesy of Beller/Murray.
Image: Amer Al-Souliman of Hashemite University in Jordan (far right) with UVic students (l-r) Jeremy Beller (PhD candidate) and John Murray (MA candidate), 2015. Credit: Courtesy of Beller/Murray.

Image_12: Wetlands/reserve in Azraq, Jordan_2009. Credit: Jessica Hoskins.
Image: The wetlands in Azraq, Jordan (2009). Photo credit: Jessica Hoskins.

High resolution images are available to media on the UVic Dropbox (http://ow.ly/tpCI302IeWd).

The paper is available online and will appear in the September issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science.

Media contacts:

April Nowell (Dept. of Anthropology) by email at anowell@uvic.ca
Anne MacLaurin (Social Sciences Communications) at 250-217-4259 or sosccomm@uvic.ca
Tara Sharpe (University Communications + Marketing) at 250-721-6248 or tksharpe@uvic.ca

Evidence of Middle Pleistocene subsistence

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