Nearly 600 obsidian handaxes from 1.2 million years ago found in Ethiopia show early humans were smarter than we think

A trove of nearly 600 obsidian handaxes, dating back at least 1.2 million years, has been unearthed in Ethiopia, indicating the presence of a prehistoric “knapping workshop”.

Knapping is the technique used to create handaxes, which are often referred to as humanity’s “first great invention.”

Made by chipping shards off a piece of stone to make a sharp edge, handaxes were not attached to handles, but held in the hand. They have a distinctive teardrop or pear shape. They were made out of flint or, later, obsidian – a type of volcanic glass.

The first handaxes in the palaeontological record date back to at least 1.5 million years ago and were found in Tanzania’s Olduvai Gorge. Handaxes are believed to have spread throughout Africa, south Asia, the Middle East and Europe around 500,000 years ago. They were still being made as recently as 40,000 years ago.

No other cultural artefact is known to have been made for such a long time.

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Prior research has suggested that knapping workshops first cropped up in the prehistoric record in Europe several hundred thousand years ago – up to 774,000 years ago. The Ethiopian find nearly doubles the earlier estimates.

The researchers found 578 handaxes buried in sediment, all but three of which were made of obsidian. They were able to estimate the age of the tools by analysing the material around them.

The extensive accumulations of obsidian artefacts in level C. a,b, General view of the level and detail of artefact density along the MS cliff (a) and inset (b). c,d, General view (c) and detail (d) of the artefact concentration (mainly handaxes) in the test pit of 2004. Credit: Nature Ecology & Evolution (2023). DOI: 10.1038/s41559-022-01970-1.

Studying the axes revealed that their construction was similar, indicating an ancient knapping workshop had been discovered.

It is unclear exactly which hominins produced the tools. A likely candidate appears to be Homo erectus, which emerged around 2 million years ago in Africa and disappears from the fossil record as recently as around 100,000 years ago.

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What the research does show, however, is a level of planning often ascribed to later human ancestors. The handaxes were pre-crafted and stored, suggesting the concept of imagination and preparation existed in these prehistoric human ancestors 1.2 million years ago.

“It has been argued that, in earlier times, multiple activities of everyday life were all uniformly conducted at the same spot. The separation of focused activities across different localities, which indicates a degree of planning, according to this mindset, characterizes later hominins,” the researchers write.

The study is published in Nature Ecology & Evolution.

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