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Discovery of Early Human Tools Hint at Earlier Start 109

Posted by samzenpus
from the rewriting-the-book dept.
SternisheFan writes in with a story about early humans passing down their tool making skills. "Sophisticated bladelets suggest that humans passed on their technological skill down the generations. A haul of stone blades from a cave in South Africa suggests that early humans were already masters of complex technology more than 70,000 years ago . The tiny blades — no more than about 3 centimeters long on average — were probably used as tips for throwable spears, or as spiky additions to club-like weapons, says Curtis Marean, an archaeologist at Arizona State University in Tempe who led the team that found the bladelets. Twenty-seven such blades, called microliths by archaeologists, were found in layers of sand and soil dating as far back as 71,000 years ago and representing a time-span of about 11,000 years, showing how long humans were manufacturing the blades. Clever crafters The find lends credence to the idea that early humans were capable of passing on their clever ideas to the next generation of artisans, creating complex technologies that endured over time. John Shea, a palaeoanthropologist at Stony Brook University in New York, says that it also suggests that 'previous hypotheses that 'early' Homo sapiens differed from 'modern' ones in these respects are probably wrong'."
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Discovery of Early Human Tools Hint at Earlier Start

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  • by richlv (778496) on Thursday November 08, 2012 @01:42AM (#41915851)

    cute editing work right there :)

    • cute editing work right there :)

      Not as cute as Colbert's "tarnish Silver's sterling reputation".

    • Re:Clever crafters (Score:4, Interesting)

      by Taco Cowboy (5327) on Thursday November 08, 2012 @03:59AM (#41916343) Journal

      The find lends credence to the idea that early humans were capable of passing on their clever ideas to the next generation

      Why is that so surprising ?
       
      Many other types of animal regularly pass on "knowledges" from one generation to the next - humans are not the only one capable of doing that.
       
      I've seen little sparrows squatting on sand so to trap fine grain sand with their down feather and then carrying the sand back to their nests.
       

      • by richlv (778496)

        waitwait. unless slashdot is messing with me... you replied to my comment. which was aimed at this gem in the summary :

        Twenty-seven such blades, called microliths by archaeologists, were found in layers of sand and soil dating as far back as 71,000 years ago and representing a time-span of about 11,000 years, showing how long humans were manufacturing the blades. Clever crafters The find lends credence to the idea that early humans were capable of passing on their clever ideas to the next generation of arti

  • by Anonymous Coward

    More food for thought on the evolution of language.

    • by jandersen (462034)

      I think we have to learn to think of language and communication in a broader sense. Strictly speaking, communication is just the transfer of information, and language is whichever means of communication you are capable of using. Hence 'body language' - cats, dogs and if you go wild, even plants, communicate and use language; that's why we can make sense of them.

      OK, so I'm stretching the concept just to be provocative, but I think it is probably wrong to assume that modern, abstract language suddenly appeare

      • by CRCulver (715279)

        Strictly speaking, communication is just the transfer of information, and language is whichever means of communication you are capable of using.

        That's not "strictly speaking" at all, because when linguists use the term "language", it refers to human language, which is distinct from e.g. animal codes of communication. Only human language is capable of things like the ambiguity and contradiction in Chomsky's famous example "Colourless green ideas sleep furiously." Human language did not exist before large b

        • by jandersen (462034)

          That's not "strictly speaking" at all, because when linguists use the term "language", it refers to human language

          I suppose it depends on your idea of "strictly", then :-)

          I'm sure I buy the idea that linguists have a patent on the definition of what language is. Perhaps because I am a mathematician by education, I tend to seek out the 'roomiest, meaningful abstraction', and to me a language is simply a means of communication.

          And strictly speaking (I do like that expression), we don't really know whether non-human animals are capable of the level of abstraction needed for Chomsky's example, although it seems likely. As

  • Mmmmnnn... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Black Parrot (19622) on Thursday November 08, 2012 @01:54AM (#41915905)

    Wikipedia has an interesting article on http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Behavioral_modernity [wikipedia.org] , which indicates that there are two schools of thought on this, which I'll call the gradualists and suddenists. The suddenists think Something Wonderful Happened ~50,000 years ago, so this discovery will make them have to move their date earlier. However, the gradualists think there are signs of modern behavior much earlier, so this news won't make them rethink anything. (Most likely they'll just say ITYS.)

    IMO the suddenists are following the same kind of thinking that made people think Neanderthals were dumb brutes, that we're a lot more different than animals than we really are, etc. ISTM that there has always been some kind of ... prejudice? conceit? ... that makes a lot of people assume that we're a lot more special than we actually are.

    • Re:Mmmmnnn... (Score:5, Informative)

      by SternisheFan (2529412) on Thursday November 08, 2012 @02:06AM (#41915935)
      Quoting from your Wikipedia link...

      "Behavioral modernity is a term used in anthropology, archeology and sociology to refer to a set of traits that distinguish present day humans and their recent ancestors from both other living primates and other extinct hominid lineages. It is the point at which Homo sapiens began to demonstrate an ability to use complex symbolic thought and express cultural creativity. These developments are often thought to be associated with the origin of language. [1] There are two main theories regarding when modern human behavior emerged. [2] One theory holds that behavioral modernity occurred as a sudden event some 50 kya (50,000 years ago) in prehistory, possibly as a result of a major genetic mutation or as a result of a biological reorganization of the brain that led to the emergence of modern human natural languages. [3] Proponents of this theory refer to this event as the Great Leap Forward [4] or the Upper Paleolithic Revolution. The second theory holds that there was never any single technological or cognitive revolution. Proponents of this view argue that modern human behavior is the result of the gradual accumulation of knowledge, skills and culture occurring over hundreds of thousands of years of human evolution. [5] Proponents of this view include Stephen Oppenheimer in his book Out of Eden, and John Skoyles and Dorion Sagan in their book Up from Dragons: The evolution of human intelligence."

    • by antifoidulus (807088) on Thursday November 08, 2012 @02:10AM (#41915951) Homepage Journal
      The suddenists think Something Wonderful Happened ~50,000 years ago,

      I think they are off by an order of magnitude, extant evidence shows that brewing alcohol only started about 10,000 years ago.
    • Re:Mmmmnnn... (Score:5, Insightful)

      by artor3 (1344997) on Thursday November 08, 2012 @02:52AM (#41916083)

      Well that's a very dismissive attitude. You're not arguing with creationists here, so drop the condescension.

      The fact is that there is a (relatively) sudden appearance of things we associate with modern thought (e.g. decoration, advanced tools, explosive population and migration) around 50 kya. I say relatively, because we're still talking about a span of tens of thousands of years. Humanity had been nearly exterminated around 70 kya, so it's entirely reasonable to think that those who survived made major evolutionary leaps -- or, put a better way, those who survived did so because of those leaps.

      That humans were making tools even before then is not "news". For example, we're pretty sure that fire was first mastered not by Homo sapiens, but by Homo erectus, hundreds of thousands of years before anatomically modern humans even existed. Homo erectus lasted for longer than modern humans have, and at the rate we're going, they'll probably end up having lived for longer on Earth than our species. But they never developed a civilization like ours, despite their million years of existence. It seems evident from that that a species can have advanced toolmaking (e.g. fire) without reaching the level of modern human intelligence.

      • by paxcoder (1222556)

        You're talking about me, and not the other man. You can treat the other man as you wish, but treat *me* well!

    • I don't think the suddenists have flint spearheads in mind when they speak of something wonderful happening some 50,000 years ago. They're more than likely thinking of the kind of sudden explosion of knowledge that gives rise to horse-driven chariots and temple building civilizations. But I could be wrong.

    • a lot of people assume that we're a lot more special than we actually are.

      That's an interesting thought, particularly in the light of the other tool-maker in the news.

      "The use and fashioning of objects as tools has rarely been seen in the animal kingdom. Alice Auersperg and Birgit Szabo, both cognitive biologists at the University of Vienna, have for the first time observed this skill in a Goffin’s Cockatoo: It makes and uses wooden tools to retrieve toys and food."

      http://scienceblog.com/57536/clever-cockatoo-with-skilled-craftmanship/ [scienceblog.com]

      That suggest the ability to visualise a

    • by chrismcb (983081)

      The suddenists think Something Wonderful Happened ~50,000 years ago,

      Isn't there another school of thought, that Something Wonderful Happened about 6,000 years ago?

      • More than that. The implication is that that something wonderful happened 5 billion years ago when their god created himself from nothing.
        • In the case of Yahweh it's more traditionally turtles all the way down. This complicated universe of ours required a creator, but its far more complex creator has always existed. Thus sayeth Hovind during prison visiting hours.

  • Sophisticated bladelets suggest that humans passed on their technological skill down the generations

    It seems odd to me there was ever a dissenting view from this, I mean what about 'standing on the shoulders of giants' concept.

    • by iluvcapra (782887)

      I mean what about 'standing on the shoulders of giants' concept.

      Strictly speaking, early hominids learned toolmaking from the Colonials and Gaius Baltar, so you have a point.

      (He used to be a farmer, you know. Changed his Aerilon accent to hide his past, but... )

      • I hope you get modded higher. You are really right on this, I was thinking the same thing too.

        It really starts to look like that's the truth.

    • by mcgrew (92797) *

      It's not only humans. The best way to train a litter of kittens to use a litter box is to leave it up to the mother cat. Catching mice isn't instinctive, it's learned. A cat without a mouser mother will never be a good mouser and likely not a mouser at all.

  • by symbolset (646467) * on Thursday November 08, 2012 @03:06AM (#41916145) Journal
    They only lost one bladelet every 400 years. Maybe they could help me find my car keys.
  • by thisisauniqueid (825395) on Thursday November 08, 2012 @04:08AM (#41916375)
    A few thousand years from now, archaeologists will make the same observations about collections of quaint crude programming languages (the ones we use today) that they find in "digital caves"...
  • Time perspective (Score:5, Interesting)

    by RedBear (207369) <redbear@redbea[ ]t.com ['rne' in gap]> on Thursday November 08, 2012 @04:28AM (#41916457) Homepage

    More and more in the last decade or so I have seen things that lead me to believe that humans have been basically modern humans for approximately 200,000 years. That's how far back our ancestors have been traced through our mitochondrial DNA. I have no doubt that in coming decades there will be new discoveries that will keep pushing the dates of "modern" human behavior further and further back.

    This is a fascinating concept to me because it means the human race and basic forms of human civilization have been around for an incredibly long time. Basic concepts like languages, writing systems, trading, counting, money, philosophy, astronomy, martial arts and many other things have probably been invented, forgotten and reinvented hundreds of times by individual geniuses over the course of those 200,000 years. All the sci-fi stories I've ever read where it's seen as some amazing thing that an alien race has been around for more than a hundred thousand years... Well, the human race proves that's really not that amazing. Or, conversely, that the human race is equally as amazing as those "ancient" alien races. In fact, we could be considered one of those "ancient" alien races, from the perspective of an alien race.

    When I was younger, the concept was that just a few thousand years ago we were retarded cave men, and then suddenly civilization happened. Nowadays what I picture is more like endless millennia of fairly intelligent people living like Native Americans in many different ways, with pockets of even more modern cultures that rose and fell through the ages, until finally a few thousand years ago a few things like writing and math were (re)discovered and remembered and propagated to enough other humans that modern civilization exploded into being and had enough momentum and population to finally stick around, where it hadn't been able to "stick" before. I think it was basically luck that things didn't develop either ten thousand years earlier or ten thousand years later. All the basic elements seem to have been there for a looooooong time.

    Just my pet theory. I am not an anthropologist, obviously, just fascinated by the things that may have happened during early modern human history, which seems to extend much further back than what I was taught in grade school.

    • by Mal-2 (675116)

      Similarly, I believe that there may have existed technologically advanced humans prior to known history. Some of them may have even succeeded at getting off the planet permanently. This would make "aliens" plausible -- they're just a split lineage of formerly Earth-based humans. There is no need to explain where they got the energy or time to cross interstellar distances, because they didn't have to.

      The main evidence against this idea is that there's still oil in the ground, and no indication it was deliber

      • Re:Time perspective (Score:4, Interesting)

        by Coisiche (2000870) on Thursday November 08, 2012 @06:18AM (#41916861)

        Yes, I have often made the point about oil to friends making this claim because it seems unlikely that the civilizations could reach, or as some claim exceed, current technology levels without using fossil fuel.

        Those speculative civilizations also don't seem to have used nuclear fission for energy. Not just because there's no evidence of uranium sources being depleted before we discovered it, but it doesn't seem that the by-products from it have ever found as "naturally occurring".

        • Or maybe there was a better energy source available to them? Something that made digging out fossils out of the ground seem pointless? Then they could well have used that all up, leaving the oil behind. It would probably have been some chemical based energy source, just like oil, due to the potential energy density.

          Then again, if there were humans so advanced that they left the planet. Where would they have gone to? And why? Seems like a massive slog to the nearest place with a potential earth-like planet

      • by Anonymous Coward

        A previous culture may have found a really easy to access energy source, and used it all up. We now don't see it as a useful energy source because it is now so rare.
         

        • by infodragon (38608)

          Yea, it's called Naquadah. Our ancient ancestors strip mined Sol of all of it! Now we are stuck with oil, and attempting to go green :(

      • The main evidence against this idea is that there's still oil in the ground, and no indication it was deliberately placed there for us. It would seem that a previous culture would need energy as badly as we do, and oil didn't take us that much technology (initially) to get at and start consuming.

        You're assuming that oil and petroleum use are neccessary steps for civilisation to arise. Who's to say that a hypothetical civilisation wouldn't have skipped the few decades of gasoline and just gone straight to wind farms plus electric engines? By comparison the effort involved in finding, drilling, pumping, refining, transporting through giant pipes or container ships, storing, pumping again, then setting oil on fire in elaborate internal combustion engines would seem pretty stupid to an outside observer

        • by khallow (566160)

          Who's to say that a hypothetical civilisation wouldn't have skipped the few decades of gasoline and just gone straight to wind farms plus electric engines?

          Why would they leave that lying around? Even if they chose not to use oil and coal for an energy source, they are still a vast supply of organic compounds. Similarly, where's the evidence of metal mining, which would be needed for those electric engines?

          • They would probably leave it lying around because the fantastically convoluted process needed to turn the goop into actual mobility would strike them as really stupidly unneccessary. I mean we used horses for thousands of years, then a century of gasoline, then many more years of electrics barring the invention of magical transport beams or something. Oil is a hiccup, a bizarre cul de sac, its really not hard to imagine a civilisation sidestepping it completely. As for metal mining, even assuming a civilisa

            • You miss the point. They may not have been using it for energy, but we use oil for a lot more than energy too. Modern plastics and other compounds have a starting point of oil. It may be possible to come up with semiconductors etc. without plastics, but it seems unlikely.

            • by khallow (566160)
              It strikes me, someone who thinks the process of turning fossil fuels into energy and other useful products is "fantastically convoluted", wouldn't be developing a technological civilization. It's just not that hard.

              But let's ignore that. We now have as our characteristics, a society that stayed local in spatial scope while on Earth, has considerable biological resources, and resides somewhere in space, but not anywhere we've looked.

              As for metal mining, even assuming a civilisation could extract enough metal for it to be noticeable after geological time periods in a tectonically active world, that metal doesn't go up in smoke, unlike gasoline.

              We are an example of a civilization that has mined enough metal to be no

              • It strikes me, someone who thinks the process of turning fossil fuels into energy and other useful products is "fantastically convoluted", wouldn't be developing a technological civilization. It's just not that hard.

                No, but its harder than just using electric vehicles. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_electric_vehicle [wikipedia.org] The notes on the early development of electric rail networks in Switzerland are interesting in the context of this speculation. The long and the short of it is that while the convenience element may be arguable, the fact that an advanced civilisation could emerge almost entirely without using oil is not to my mind in question.

                We are an example of a civilization that has mined enough metal to be noticed on a geological scale. And because that metal doesn't go away, there'll be sedimentary layers with unusual characteristics (such as unusually high or low metal and organics concentrations) for millions of years to come.

                I would dispute this, given the amount of tectonic shifting the earth

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      When I was younger, the concept was that just a few thousand years ago we were retarded cave men, and then suddenly civilization happened. Nowadays what I picture is more like endless millennia of fairly intelligent people living like Native Americans in many different ways until finally a few thousand years ago a few things were (re)discovered and remembered and propagated to enough other humans that modern civilization exploded into being and had enough momentum and population to finally stick around, where it hadn't been able to "stick" before.

      I always thought the main jump to civilization we know today was agriculture. This allows sedentary people which in turn makes time to cultivate land: Not just the farmland but also the farms and any other buildings. This type of culture is obviously easier to find and spot because it's bigger.
      Cultural items for a roaming people would have to be far smaller and probably consist of more organic materials as stone and metallic items would just be to heavy to carry around.

      I think some decades back we may ha

    • Basic concepts like languages, writing systems, trading, counting, money, philosophy, astronomy, martial arts and many other things have probably been invented, forgotten and reinvented hundreds of times by individual geniuses over the course of those 200,000 years

      Trading is really old, so it was never forgotten. It evolved just once, in East Africa before we got out of Africa. It was never forgotten

      Spoken language is something we evolved into. We have the language instinct at birth. It is not something

      • by careysub (976506)

        Writing was invented only twice.... All the writing systems of the Old World were either derived from linear-b or inspired by it.

        While this may be true, a once only invention in the Old World is only a plausible guess, because there are several ancient writing systems that show no commonality in origin: Mespotamia, Egypt, Indus Valley, and China. None of these writing systems are derived from the others (linear-b is demonstrably derived from Mesopotamian writing however).

        The main reason why the guess is plausible is that the writing systems were invented at different times, and the farther they were from Mesopotamia (the first) the l

      • by Anonymous Coward

        Your comment is outrageously wrong.

        Let's start with, the Incas didn't have a written language. The Mayans did, so there is an example of invention in the Americas.

        Next, "linear b". I'm going to put a lot of stress on "b". Even if you knew nothing about languages, the "b" should give away the fact that it is the second in the series of scripts for ancient Greek. In fact linear b is much newer than Cuneiform or Egyptian Hieroglyphics.

  • Am I the only one slightly inconvenienced by the expression "masters of complex technology" for crafting tiny stone blades?

    By the same token, the hyperbole-inclined call "Mousterian technological complex" a pretty simple set of stone tools made by Neanderthals...
    Right, everything is relative, but still, in historical perspective, none of these even remotely qualify as "complex". Seriously, start with the invention of the wheel, one of the six SIMPLE machines:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simple_mac [wikipedia.org]
    • Blades are a form of wedge [wikipedia.org], one of the six simple machines. Miniaturization of technology is generally considered an advancement. In this case, "complex technology" is a comparison between these miniature blades and an unshaped rock or stick. The topic is early (i.e. Paleolithic) humans, right? So yes, for that time-frame, based on what was previously known about their technology, these small blades are rather advanced. The "masters" bit comes in when you consider that they were able to consistently use thi
  • by Zorpheus (857617) on Thursday November 08, 2012 @07:55AM (#41917195)
    According to wikipedia the oldest stone tools are 2.6 to 1.7 million years old: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oldowan [wikipedia.org]
    So what is so special about this?
    • by Anonymous Coward

      Microliths, the type of flaked sharp objects discovered, are more advanced. It requires non-intuitive stoneworking skills to create them, and from a functional perspective it provides far more blades per piece of chunk of material (obsidian or flint, usually), which is a big advantage.

      So microliths aren't about just making small blades, you have to have advanced stoneworking techniques to make them, which might be an indication of more advanced culture. The tools found are, I believe, about 20k older than p

    • by mcgrew (92797) *

      So what is so special about this?

      Advancement. Smaller, sharper, straighter, far less crude.

  • by foma84 (2079302) on Thursday November 08, 2012 @08:24AM (#41917295)
    After reading TFA there is one thing that leaves me mighty confused.
    The only hypothesis made for these artifacts is that they were weapons or parts of bigger weapons, and that they led to a military advantage over neanderthals.
    TFA doesn't even consider any other possibile use for the bladelets, like being tools for skinning, carving or sculpting. Even the requirement of having developed complex language is secondary to the craftsmanship necessary for the bladelets.

    I've seen it is common among some anthropologists to consider the history of humanity in the same terms as the most recent history (last 6.000 years): in terms of war and contending parties. Is there anyone informed enough (more than me) about this topic that can tell if it is actually a trait of human history or an ideological bias?
    Thanks in advance.
    • by Loughla (2531696)

      I've seen it is common among some anthropologists to consider the history of humanity in the same terms as the most recent history (last 6.000 years): in terms of war and contending parties. Is there anyone informed enough (more than me) about this topic that can tell if it is actually a trait of human history or an ideological bias?

      I would imagine that their decision that these bladelets were parts of larger weapons has a lot to do with the shape of the tools compared to the shape of tools whose use we understand.

      For instance: on the creek on our farm, we're all the time finding flint tools. It's quite easy to distinguish between those used as weapons and those used as hammers, scrapers or knives for sculpting. The shapes aren't even close to the same.

      I do have to assume that a specialist in this field would understand that basic prem

    • Suggested readings:

      1. Before the Dawn by Nicholas Wade.

      2. The Third Chimpanzee by Jared Diamond

      3. The language instinct by Steven Pinker

      4. The Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond.

      • by Quirkz (1206400)
        I've read #4, and it was fascinating. Glad to have the recommendations for the other three.
  • Could be Cow Tools.



    ...just sayin'
  • "about 3 centimeters long on average "

    I am amazed that70,000 years ago these toolmakers were using the metric system - yet USA is still using inches, pounds and gallons when we are trying to explore space.

  • by Hognoxious (631665) on Thursday November 08, 2012 @09:09AM (#41917505) Homepage Journal

    Sophisticated bladelets suggest that humans passed on their technological skill down the generations.

    Og: Ug look happy.
    Ug: Ug is happy!
    Og: Why Ug happy?
    Ug: Ug finish pay off student loan!

  • Unless you're using "tools" as a verb, there should be an "s" at the end of "hint." /grammar-nag

  • They got the dates wrong?

  • ... teenage kids. Who promptly borrowed all of dad's tools and then didn't put them back.

Those who do things in a noble spirit of self-sacrifice are to be avoided at all costs. -- N. Alexander.

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