New Discovery Pushes Date of the Oldest Stone Tools Back 700,000 Years

Up until last month, the oldest known hominid-manufactured stone tools dated to approximately 2.6 million years ago and came from a site at Gona, Ethiopia.  In April, Science Magazine reported on a conference paper announcing that tools dating to 3.3 million years ago had been discovered at a site near Lomekwi, Kenya. This is a VERY important discovery, pushing the date for earliest tools back 700,000 years. I held off posting on this as I was frustrated (as were other archaeologists I know) that there were no photographs of the artifacts provided. Earlier this week, the New York Times had an article on the subject that provided a link to the abstract of an article published in Nature by the discoverers. The photo of artifacts above was posted with the abstract along with some others, and my curiosity was somewhat satisfied.

This new discovery is similar to the one at Gona, in that the tools so far have not been discovered in direct association with any hominid remains.  It is assumed that they must have been made by contemporary known hominids, perhaps Australopithecus sp. or Kenyanthropus platyops. Unless and until we find a direction association of tools and bones we will not know who was responsible.

One of the more controversial aspects of the find has been the fact that the discoverers have asserted that these earlier stone tools should be referred to as a new Lomekwian lithic tradition. Up until this time, the earliest stone tool tradition (including the discoveries at Gona) were referred to as belonging to the Oldowan lithic tradition, based upon their first discovery by Louis and Mary Leakey in the 1930s at Olduvai (now Oldupai) Gorge in Tanzania. Discoverers subsequent to the Leakeys continued to use Oldowan as a descriptive term for a specific lithic “tool kit” even though their discoveries sometimes predated the ones at Olduvai (Oldupai). Looking at these tools, it doesn’t appear to me that they are really any different than those that have previously been classified as Oldowan. It doesn’t appear that the discoverers have advanced any real evidence that the Lomekwi tools are qualitatively or quantitatively different from Oldowan.

Usage by archaeologists over time will tell the tale, but somehow I doubt Lomekwian will catch on. I look forward to reading what other archaeologists have to say about this.

California Dry

Anyone who has been paying attention to the news here in the US knows about the current extreme drought in California and all the problems that it’s causing. My daughter who lives in Long Beach said in a message some weeks ago, “Remember back in 2010 when it rained and rained here and we had that flood that drowned both our cars and totaled them? I miss those days – can we have them back?”

The New York Times has an excellent article that puts California’s current situation in historical perspective. Climatic reconstruction shows that over the last 2,000 years, California has had two “megadroughts” that have been centuries in length. It’s far too soon to know if this is the beginning of another megadrought, but if you will please click to enlarge the chart above you can see that California has been more dry than wet over the last two millennia. If you look at the two megadroughts on the chart you’ll see they correlate with the Medieval Climatic Anomaly that was one of the causal factors in the Anasazi/Ancestral Pueblo abandonment of the Northern Southwest. Even in the archaeological record here in the Front Range, we see a population crash in the late 13th Century.

At a Society for California Archaeology conference 10+ years ago, I attended a paper that presented much the same data. An observation made by that presenter was that the period of European discovery and colonization of California pretty much correlates with the wettest period in the region in the last 2,000 years. You can see that yourself on this chart. Our society’s view of what’s “normal climate” in California is hopelessly skewed.

The early anthropologists and archaeologists who worked in California in the late 19th and early 20th Century didn’t have access to these environmental reconstructions and assumed the past climate was much like today.  Their assumptions about past Indian behavior were that they were living in this “paradise” full of easily obtainable wild food, and were just able to coast along. Now we know that wasn’t the case, and a volume of papers demonstrating that was titled, Prehistoric California: Archaeology and the Myth of Paradise.

Skeleton of Ottoman War Camel Discovered in Austria

Archaeologists in Austria have excavated the intact skeleton of a camel in a suburb of Vienna. It appears this camel was used by the Ottoman Army in the failed siege of Vienna in 1683.

Detailed analysis of the remains showed that it had worn a harness and had been ridden. Additionally, it proved to be a Bactrian – Dromedary cross, a hybrid that was very popular for use by the Ottoman military. I wondered what a two-hump x one-hump camel cross would look like, and Chas
was able to give us a picture of one.

So there you are. Looks kind of like a Dromedary on steroids to me.

Oh, and while I was looking at the Wikipedia page about the siege of Vienna, I found this painting of Polish soldiers headed home after the battle with loot taken from the Ottomans. Including you know what. Maybe there are some more skeletons waiting to be found in Poland.

Neanderthal Hearing

Remember about three weeks ago when I posted about Neanderthal jewelry and said the more we find out about them, the more like us they seem?

Maybe I was a little hasty.

For the first time, researchers in France have been able to isolate and identify the bones from the inner ear of a Neanderthal. It appears that there are significant anatomical differences between these bones and those of modern humans. The upshot may be that there may have been differences in the range of hearing between modern humans and Neanderthals. The research hasn’t progressed to the point where any of these possible differences can be identified yet.

And my recurring comments on the value of re-studying old collections – this skeletal material was originally excavated in the early 1970s.

The Cutting Edge of Social Trends

An article in the New York Times tells us that coloring books for adults is now “a thing” as we say these days. One popular adult coloring book has sold 1.4 million copies since 2013. The article tells us that many of these crayon enthusiasts buy multiple copies of the same coloring book so they can try different color patterns on the same picture. Some people are turning this into a social activity as they meet in “coloring circles.” That might be fun if they served beer.

My daughter always seems to have an instinct about these things. A couple of weeks ago, granddaughter Bella was laid up with a cold, and she and Lauren spent some quality convalescent time together coloring in one of Bella’s coloring books.

Lauren proudly posted some of her work on social media. With an appropriate equestrian theme.

Some Archaeology News from Alberta

A number of years ago I did a post about a Pleistocene horse-kill site that had been found in Alberta. This was the first Paleoindian horse-kill site ever found. A few years later a Paleoindian camel-kill site, also the first ever found, was located near by. The first assessment by Brian Kooyman, who excavated the sites, was that they were of Clovis age.

However, a new radiocarbon assay taken from the camel-kill site, indicates that the site is actually older than Clovis. Funding for the new study came from the Center for the Study of the First Americans at Texas A&M. (H/T Walter Hingley)

The second bit of news from Alberta concerns a bison-kill site that dates to about 2,500 years ago. The site is unusual for a couple of reasons. First, most Plains bison kills come in two varieties:

1. Jumps – where the animals are stampeded over a cliff and are killed or seriously injured in the fall
2. Traps – where the animals are trapped in a natural feature like a small box canyon, or in a man-made feature like a corral and then later dispatched

This site is apparent a very rare variety of trap, where the animals were caught in a bog or marsh.

Second, after the bison were butchered, some of the bone was treated rather strangely. The archaeologists found  eight arrangements of bison bones standing on end, perched in precise, almost sculptural patterns. I frankly had never heard of anything quite like that.

The projectile points shown above are mostly Besant corner-notched dart points that look similar to what we have in the same time period here in Colorado. The article talks about many of them being made of a type of stone found only in North Dakota, hundreds of miles away. Looking at this photo, it must be Knife River Flint, which was traded all over the Plains from Paleoindian times on. Archaeologists’ colloquial description of the appearance of Knife River Flint is that it looks like frozen root beer. 

Where Did Everyone Go?

It’s not unusual for us to see raptors buzzing the deck with a resultant mad scramble of birds on the feeders heading to cover. We don’t usually get to see the hawk or falcon, just the scattering prey. I don’t know much about the raptors’ success rate, but there is currently a pile of feathers on the ground just east of the deck that is evidence of the murder of a Eurasian Collared Dove.

But we’ve never seen one land to look around like this Sharp-shinned Hawk did last month. Maybe just casing the joint.

More Helen Rockstar

New York Review of Books Press is now using the H is for Hawk connection in ads for its edition of The Goshawk.

Helen sent us the schedule for her April American book tour. As she told us, it’s rather coastal. If she’s going to be near you, go see her.

4/7 Tuesday            Boston                          Harvard Bookstore
4/8 Wednesday    New York                      Greenlight
4/10 Friday           Manchester Center, VT    Northshire Bookstore
4/11 Saturday       Saratoga Springs, NY     Northshire Bookstore
4/12 Sunday         Rhinebeck, NY               Oblong Bookstore
4/14 Tuesday       San Francisco                Rakestraw Books (lunch)
4/14 Tuesday       San Francisco                Green Apple (7 PM)
4/15 Wednesday  Point Reyes, CA            Point Reyes Books

4/16 Thursday       Seattle                          Third
Place Books