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Science

Tool Use By Humans Pushed Back By 800,000 Years 189

Posted by samzenpus
from the oldest-spoon dept.
gpronger writes "The journal Nature reports that newly discovered tool marks on bones indicates that we were using tools at minimum 800,000 years earlier than previously thought. This places the start of tool use at 3.4 million years ago or earlier. The most likely ancestor in this time frame would be Australopithecus afarensis. The researchers, led by palaeoanthropologist Zeresenay Alemseged of the California Academy of Science, San Francisco,and Shannon McPherron, (an archaeologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany) state that cut marks on the bones of an impala-sized creature and another closer in size to a buffalo, indicate butchering of the animals by our distant ancestors. However, they do not believe that they were in fact hunters, more likely scavenging the remains left behind by large predators."
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Tool Use By Humans Pushed Back By 800,000 Years

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  • by Penguinisto (415985) on Thursday August 12, 2010 @05:32AM (#33226094) Journal

    Oh, wait... wrong Tool.

    (I hate babysitting databases... makes the brain go all squiggly at 2 in the morning. At least now I can stop wondering if they found a fossilized CD player next to the bones...)

    • OGT, back from '92.

      3,400,092 BC, that is.
      • No, you misunderstand. "Use By Humans", which was to have been their 4th full-length release in two decades, has been delayed 800,000 years.

        I hope this is what you had in mind, because this is what you're getting.

    • I hate babysitting databases...

      You had me wondering for quite a while here about who
      the hell would run a babysitting database, and if it could
      be someone from the "think of the children" crowd...

  • by CharlyFoxtrot (1607527) on Thursday August 12, 2010 @05:36AM (#33226118)

    Turns out we're not the only animal that uses tools [wikipedia.org] so there's no reason why it would have appeared recently in human evolution. What's more impressive is our ability to design tools to attain a certain objective by using only our imagination (abstract thought) rather than the ability to pick up a rock from the vicinity to carve up a carcass. That's likely much more recent.

    • by Kupfernigk (1190345) on Thursday August 12, 2010 @06:03AM (#33226196)
      You may be correct, but you have not the slightest evidence to back up that claim. There are many, many other issues to consider, such as environmental pressure or the lack thereof, and the difficulty of abstract thought before there were any abstractions - the bootstrap problem. Our present ability to think of new tools in an environment surrounded by them is not, perhaps, that impressive. The first person to think of trimming a sharp rock for better performance was a genuine innovator.
      • by asc99c (938635) on Thursday August 12, 2010 @07:52AM (#33226666) Homepage

        > The first person to think of trimming a sharp rock for better performance was a genuine innovator.

        If only they'd patented it!

      • by discord5 (798235) on Thursday August 12, 2010 @08:23AM (#33226822)

        The first person to think of trimming a sharp rock for better performance was a genuine innovator.

        Sadly, the word innovation and all the derivative vocabulary that comes with it due to overuse in the latest marketing fodder triggered an image of a caveman named Zog making a sharper rock. When he had finally created this technological marvel the word quickly spread in the local tribal community. The tribe would go out hunting, and those whose rocks didn't meet required sharpness criteria would be considered to be fools clinging to obsolete technology. In a matter of days, Zog had ascended from lowly rockbasher to an expert in the field of innovative hunting.

        Zog had it all: finely cut food from the most tasty animals the local wildlife had to offer, the adoration of the masses, commanding power over the world because of his fearsomely sharp weaponry, and a veritable harem of alluring females. A few weeks after his rise to power though, things weren't looking so great anymore for Zog. Nerg, the foul smelling tribal lunatic, had taken his innovative rocksharpening technique and had improved the process by a factor of 2 by means of sustained repetitive bashing. No longer did Zog have the sharpest rocks in the tribe, and almost instantaneously he lost it all. The masses no longer adored him for they were too busy hunting with Nerg. His power over the world stagnated and eventually had to make way for the sharper weaponry of Nerg. But most important of all, his considerably sized harem of willing females left him for the newer more powerful rocksharpener.

        And that is how the Tribal Patent Orgnanization was formed. Scratched into a cavewall for all eternity we find the worlds first patent: "TPO Issued Patent #00000001 : A technique for sharpening rocks by bashing rocks against eachother.". It includes various drawings on rock sharpening techniques and a vague description of acquiring a harem by the use of these techniques. Unfortunately Zog never got to sue Nerg in a tribal court of law, because Nerg bashed in his skull with an incredibly sharp rock several minutes after filing the patent.

        To this day, Nerg is remembered as the worlds first innovator and harem owner.

        True story!

        (I apologize for the precious time I stole from you to read this, but the code I'm writing right now is slowly killing my brain unless I entertain it a little in small doses. Tune in next comment, when Dorg invents fire and accidentally burns down his cave, and is remembered throughout history as the worlds smartest and most stupid caveman of all time. Don't miss out on how Dorg later also invents insurance fraud.)

      • by dan828 (753380) on Thursday August 12, 2010 @01:15PM (#33229952)
        It's something people don't seem to get-- mostly I think because our education system is full of little stories about how "stupid" people of the past were for believing something we see as foolish now, or because they didn't have electricity or some such (like knowing how to flip a light switch somehow makes you a genius). People genetically indistinguishable from us lived in the stone age, and their technological know how involved use of natural materials to create what we consider to be crude tools, yet, all in all, those people probably had a great deal more know-how then most people around today. They could make tools, hunt or gather their food, build a fire to cook it, and fashion a shelter to protect themselves from the elements. Most modern people only know how to use tools that others have created and haven't a clue how any of them work.
        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by the phantom (107624)
          Yes, but neither the article nor the post that you responded to have anything to do with Stone Age people who are nearly identical to modern humans on a genetic level. Rather, the article refers to tool use by A. afarensis ("Lucy's" species). This is a rather extraordinary find, as not only was Lucy very different from modern humans (smaller, more gracile in general, smaller brain, &c.), but if Lucy was using tools, then the first evidence of any human ancestor using tools gets pushed back almost a mi
        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by the_womble (580291)

          I agree. We know more, there are some things in our social organisation that are better (democracy, vs feudalism, bans on toruture, etc.).

          On the other hand, we can sometimes be worse: we can be cruel and uncarig - which is perhaps why 13th century England had only 188 suicides over a century [rcpsych.org], whereas the UK currently has about 3,000 a year (a MUCH higher per capita rate even with the roughly 30 fold population growth).

      • by ultranova (717540)

        There are many, many other issues to consider, such as environmental pressure or the lack thereof, and the difficulty of abstract thought before there were any abstractions - the bootstrap problem.

        All animals with some kind of nervous system have abstractions. The whole point of a nervous system is summarize sensory input and decide on a course of action. What humans have is a means to communicate abstractions of arbitrary level from one to other; in other words, a symbolic language.

    • not exactly... (Score:4, Informative)

      by m.shenhav (948505) on Thursday August 12, 2010 @06:11AM (#33226232)
      It should be noted that while human imagination is alright, its in fact failing us most of the time when it comes to technology (as statistics on patents and businesses show). It can be thought of as mutation in the process of cultural evolution.

      People try stuff out and see what works, often discovering a very different application then originally intended or finding the thing useless. This is selection.

      It is the accurate transmission (or in evolution terms reproduction) of complex multi-step tool production methods that allows for cumulative cultural evolution. This kind of thing is hard to prove for animals- but there are chimpanzee troops with multi-step tool production.

      The recombination of such behaviors/tools/ideas is accelerating the process even further, which is why technological evolution is accelerating while genetically we haven't changed that much (conjecture!). In fact we have not so distant relatives (so called Boskop man) that had larger average cranial volume.
    • by Zocalo (252965)

      What's more impressive is our ability to design tools to attain a certain objective by using only our imagination (abstract thought) rather than the ability to pick up a rock from the vicinity to carve up a carcass. That's likely much more recent.

      Actually, abstract thought might not be as recent or require as much evolutionary development as is often thought either. See the video embedded on this page [www.noob.us] where I'd say that a chimpanzee is clearly demonstrating abstract thought, not only working out what too

      • by c6gunner (950153) on Thursday August 12, 2010 @07:08AM (#33226444)

        Actually, abstract thought might not be as recent or require as much evolutionary development as is often thought either.

        While I agree that this is a possibility, I think it's rather funny that you're using the behavior of a modern-day chimp as evidence. You do realize that the chimp in that video has had just as much time and "evolutionary development" as we have, don't you?

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by tophermeyer (1573841)

          +1 Insightful

          Chimps might appear to be more primitive than humans, but they are just as evolutionarily distant from our common ancestor as we are. Looking to chimps for evidence of human-like behavior is interesting in that it shows behaviors like tool use are not unique to humans, but is not really indicative of the capabilities of our ancestors. There is nothing really "advanced" about humans, we have simply evolved different capabilities. Remember that pound for pound and average chimp is about 10x st

          • by ultranova (717540)

            Chimps might appear to be more primitive than humans, but they are just as evolutionarily distant from our common ancestor as we are.

            Of course, modern-day bacteria are also just as evolutionarily distant from our common ancestor as we are, yet I'd say they are quite a bit more primitive than us.

        • by 0xdeadbeef (28836)

          You do realize that the chimp in that video has had just as much time and "evolutionary development" as we have, don't you?

          lol, you think evolution is progress and that progress is getting smarter. You do realize how erroneous that is, don't you?

          The chimp skull resembles those of our early ancestors. The only conclusion you can draw is that abstract thought is possible in a primate brain of a certain size.

          • by c6gunner (950153)

            lol, you think evolution is progress and that progress is getting smarter

            I do? Interesting. I'd be curious to know how you've come to that conclusion, given that I was saying the exact opposite.

        • by Asic Eng (193332)
          Well if two descendants of species X have the skill C, then it's a lot more likely that X also had C than it would be if only one of them had it. Of course it is possible for both descendants to develop C independently, but that would indicate that it might not be as hard to develop C. Those were the two options the GP pointed out.
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by L3370 (1421413)

          You do realize that the chimp in that video has had just as much time and "evolutionary development" as we have, don't you?

          Yeah something like six thousand years. :P

          *removes flamesuit*

    • by kill-1 (36256)

      Well, some birds do design their own tools [youtube.com] (kind of) to attain a certain objective.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by TapeCutter (624760) *
        Most things that are claimed to be uniquely human are just more sophisticated versions of what other intelligent animals can do [youtube.com]. As you point out birds (and chimps) have primative tool designing abilities. Birds and chimps also make elaborate nests [blogspot.com] by collecting and assembling parts, chimp nests [archaeology.org] are a kind of bed they build in a tree to sleep at night.
        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by gorzek (647352)

          And then you have species like dolphins, elephants, and pigs--all of which are very intelligent, they just lack the dextrous digits humans have so their ability to manipulate the environment is limited. Elephants are something of an exception due to their trunks, though--they can manipulate tools and perform complex tasks with them.

          We just hit the evolutionary lottery, as it were: opposable thumbs, high intelligence, complex vocal communication, abstract thought, and self-awareness. Those traits can all be

    • by Runaway1956 (1322357) on Thursday August 12, 2010 @07:16AM (#33226482) Homepage Journal

      Good link. I was sitting here thinking about all the tool using animals I've ever heard of. That page pretty much covers them. And, of course, primates pretty much lead the list. There was a story in the last couple years about a band of primates discovering a newer, better way to catch termites from a termite mound. I think they frayed the bit of straw or stick, giving the termites more area to grab hold of. The chimp got more termite chow for the same effort with the improved stick. The interesting bit was, they taught another band how to do the same thing.

      Man may be the most prolific tool user, but he certainly isn't unique.

      • by mcgrew (92797) *

        The interesting bit was, they taught another band how to do the same thing.

        Even house cats learn from others. The mammo cat teaches the kittens how to use a litter box, for example. My daughter's cat try to mimick human, to the point of petting your arm when they want to be petted themselves. The oldest one learned how to use a doorknob to get through a closed door.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Chris Burke (6130)

        Man may be the most prolific tool user, but he certainly isn't unique.

        But perhaps mankind is unique in our ability to consider ourselves unique, and to be off-put by the revelation that we aren't.

        Also, we may be unique in contemplating the idea of wiping out those other pesky tool-using animals to restore our uniqueness.

        Or maybe that's just my uniqueness. :)

    • Turns out we're not the only animal that uses tools so there's no reason why it would have appeared recently in human evolution.

      The only surprise would be if the most recent common ancestor of ourselves and chimps *didn't* use tools, some six million years ago.

  • And (Score:2, Interesting)

    How long until we learn to use them properly, i.e. mindfully and responsibly?

    ------
    How tool are you today?
  • Good god... (Score:4, Funny)

    by geogob (569250) on Thursday August 12, 2010 @05:43AM (#33226140)

    ...then we've been using tool even before earth, the sky and whatnot were created! What a mind blowing revelation.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Actually it makes you wonder, if the progress to get there took 800000 years, then what happened in the past 10000 is really incredible.

  • Evolution (Score:5, Funny)

    by onion2k (203094) on Thursday August 12, 2010 @05:46AM (#33226152) Homepage

    Nearly three and a half million years of humans using tools, and I can't even put up a shelf. If you want evidence that evolution isn't all it's cracked up to be, there it is.

    • by Finallyjoined!!! (1158431) on Thursday August 12, 2010 @05:50AM (#33226168)
      I can put up a shelf. But I can't butcher a carcass. Evolution in reverse eh?.
      • Re:Evolution (Score:5, Insightful)

        by MichaelSmith (789609) on Thursday August 12, 2010 @06:10AM (#33226228) Homepage Journal

        I can put up a shelf. But I can't butcher a carcass. Evolution in reverse eh?.

        The other day I was sitting in a release planning meeting, listing to a discussion about our version control system and related tooling. Suddenly I had this thought that we were all just a bunch of apes, manipulating abstractions of abstractions of tools ultimately designed to help us catch our dinner. Now I don't know how we do it at all. It all seems so unlikely.

        • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

          by bazorg (911295)
          I thought you were going to say: The other day I was sitting in a release planning meeting and all I could think about was butchering carcasses.
        • Re:Evolution (Score:5, Insightful)

          by delire (809063) on Thursday August 12, 2010 @06:43AM (#33226338)

          Suddenly I had this thought that we were all just a bunch of apes, manipulating abstractions of abstractions of tools ultimately designed to help us catch our dinner.

          The real abstraction you're talking about is post-industrial capitalism. Meat eaters often consider themselves somehow kin to the Great Hunter, that by eating a bloody steak they are somehow closer to the earth and it's mortal realities yet they couldn't be further from it. Rather, they cowardly pay another to kill a sick beast - stoned on antibiotics so that it can actually live and eat corn - on their behalf. I say that as someone that grew up on a farm and often ate what I killed with my own hands.

          Unlike our hunter forebears, people caneat meat every day because of the abstraction of late capitalism. I encourage every meat eater to take the life of the thing they want to eat, at least once in their lives. Look at the beast in the eyes, take its life and then eat parts of its body. A highly valuable dietary - and somehow even spiritual - reality check.

          • by roman_mir (125474) on Thursday August 12, 2010 @07:22AM (#33226514) Homepage Journal

            As a vegetarian I do it every day, I look that salad right into the eye and put it out of its misery.

          • Ha! Some of us have actually butchered our own meat. Deer, pig, and cows, not to mention loads of small game and fish. Butchering isn't a lost art out in the sticks.

            And, yes, I like my beef medium rare to rare. I don't want the blood to actually dribble down my chin - but I most definitely want it JUICY!!

          • by MightyYar (622222)

            All I know is that bloody, sick, whatever - meat tastes good.

            I've never killed a cow - but I regularly go fishing and then eat the fish... does that count?

          • > somehow even spiritual
            I guess I can kind of imagine what you mean, but I can't relate. I've killed animals before and likely will again, but the feelings I get are a momentary thrill of success if it was a hunt, sorrow for the loss and remorse for what I've done, and a satiated belly if I eat it.

            • by Abcd1234 (188840)

              but the feelings I get are a momentary thrill of success if it was a hunt, sorrow for the loss and remorse for what I've done, and a satiated belly if I eat it.

              I dunno, one of the functions of your average grazing animal is to be food for those higher up in the food chain, and that includes humans. I'd feel *far* more remorse if I simply killed an animal, or worse, stuffed and mounted the thing. Sport hunters? Seriously, you fuckers can go die in a fire. But hunting, and then eating what we kill, is, I

      • by mcgrew (92797) *

        Well, you need to be taught how to do those things or you'll do it very poorly if you even get it done at all. "If I see farther than other men, it's because I stand on the shoulders of giants."

        I don't see how anyone could not be able to put up a shelf. At least a bad one, anyway. I was cleaning rabbits and squirrels when I was six or seven years old; my dad was an avid hunter. But like I said, if I hadn't been taught I'd do a piss-poor job trying to.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Urkki (668283)

        I can put up a shelf. But I can't butcher a carcass. Evolution in reverse eh?.

        Sure you can. If you were put naked into the wilderness, surrounded with carcasses and no other food in sight, you'd probably be digging into them with a makeshift stone knife in a matter of hours, especially if you were aware that your life depended on it.

        Don't underestimate the power of knowledge, even if it's just knowledge that something can be done, but not knowing how.

    • by geogob (569250)

      That would be true if evolution was a purely individual thing. But the evolution of social behavior, living in society where people specialized their skills to be more efficient and trade their skills against skills of other is also part of the evolution of mankind. That's why you'll always find someone to put up that tablet for you...

      In the end, I feel that this social evolution is much more cracked up than the biological evolution.

    • by sorak (246725) on Thursday August 12, 2010 @09:23AM (#33227304)

      Maybe shelves have evolved a defense against being put up. Have you ever considered that?

      I'm thinking of calling it "The IKEA Gene"

      • I'm thinking of calling it "The IKEA Gene"

        More like IKEA "documentation" - best defense against setting up a shelf ever devised.

        • by sorak (246725)

          I'm thinking of calling it "The IKEA Gene"

          More like IKEA "documentation" - best defense against setting up a shelf ever devised.

          In all honesty, I have never bought an item from IKEA. It just sounds better than "cheap Chinese crap bought from Target". The documentation that gets my goat is when someone produces text-free instructions. Every step is just a drawing. I usually refer to them a hieroglyphics, and gripe that they couldn't pay one person who speaks the language of whatever country the product is being marketed in, to type up a description.

  • WELL (Score:3, Insightful)

    by ciderbrew (1860166) on Thursday August 12, 2010 @05:58AM (#33226188)
    I think we all agree here that this is "just a theory". Despite all that MumboJumbo you call "Science".
    It's only a theory. Like gravity and maths.

    +6 flamebate on other sites, this sort of talk is you know...
    • only a theory. Like gravity and maths.

      Mods, this should have been your clue.

      +6 flamebate on other sites, this sort of talk is you know...

      Did you mods even read this?

      • just a moment. the fact that people have been using tools for a very long time doesn't mean that they have to read the instructions before.

  • by Theatetus (521747) on Thursday August 12, 2010 @06:59AM (#33226404) Journal
    Even non-hominids use implements like rocks and sticks. Tools are specifically fabricated or altered: what's important about tools is not that they are used but that they are made. Unless we find the rocks they used and see whether they were flaked by the hominids or just found already sharp, we can't call these "tools".
  • I was under the impression that we were maybe 300,000-400,000 years old as a species. How do they go back 800,000 to millions of years?

    • by dingen (958134) on Thursday August 12, 2010 @07:41AM (#33226602)
      Homo Sapiens are around for about 500,000 years, but what they're talking about in this article are our ancestors of human-like primates, of which some species are tens of millions of years old.
  • ...cut marks on the bones of an impala-sized creature...

    Is that supposed to be our car analogy for this article?

  • by OglinTatas (710589) on Thursday August 12, 2010 @07:24AM (#33226524)

    Tool use by humans pushed back again, and by 800,000 years? I can't wait that long. I have to fix my brakes this weekend.

  • This is just after the appearance of the monolith, right?

  • by shaitand (626655) on Thursday August 12, 2010 @10:56AM (#33228238) Journal

    The earliest known tool use was to carve up a tasty critter. Hopefully this puts an end to the myth that the natural diet for humans is vegetarian.

    By all means make your personal choice for whatever reasons. Just don't pretend its the rest of us who are acting in a manner contrary to our nature.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by MozeeToby (1163751)

      I'd think the existence of canine and incisor teeth in humans would be enough to convince any reasonable person that were are evolved to be omnivorous.

  • The early hominoids walked and perhaps ran like moderns. But their head remained small for a couple million years until homo erectus. What stimulated increased brain size? Some people the brain acts like radiator to dissipate the heat of running in the hot savanna.

"If truth is beauty, how come no one has their hair done in the library?" -- Lily Tomlin

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