Earliest known stone tools likely tens of thousands of years older than previously believed

CANTERBURY, United Kingdom — Archaeologists consider Oldowan and Acheulean stone tools to be the oldest existing examples of ancient technology. Now, a new study finds these prehistoric tools are likely older than anyone thinks. Researchers the University of Kent’s School of Anthropology and Conservation say the stone relics may be tens of thousands of years older than the original estimates.

Study authors say these new findings change a whole lot for archeologists. They may provide a new “chronological foundation” by which to understand how early humans began creating and producing stone tools. This new timeline also raises questions about the evolution of humanity’s technological capabilities. Rewriting the evolutionary timeline may also change the technological connection to dietary and behavioral changes that occurred simultaneously.

Researchers used newly devised statistical modeling methods to reach these new conclusions. It’s a notable leap forward, considering scientists have only recently introduced these techniques to the archeological world.

Rewriting prehistory

According to the new models, Oldowan stone tools originated between 2.617 and 2.644 million years ago. That’s anywhere from 36,000 to 63,000 years earlier than the currently accepted evidence indicates. Meanwhile, study authors estimate Acheulean tools appeared between 1.815 and 1.823 million years ago (at least 55,000 years earlier than believed).

As one can probably imagine, the development of stone tools was a big boon for prehistoric humans. These helpful tools made life easier by providing greater access to various food sources, easing the production of wooden tools, and facilitating the quick “processing” of animal carcasses.

“Our research provides the best possible estimates for understanding when hominins first produced these stone tool types. This is important for multiple reasons, but for me at least, it is most exciting because it highlights that there are likely to be substantial portions of the artifact record waiting to be discovered,” says lead study author Dr. Alastair Key, a Paleolithic Archaeologist, in a university release.

“The optimal linear estimation (OLE) modeling technique was originally developed by myself and a colleague to date extinctions. It has proved to be a reliable method of inferring the timing of species extinction and is based on the timings of last sightings, and so to apply it to the first sightings of archaeological artifacts was another exciting breakthrough. It is our hope that the technique will be used more widely within archaeology,” adds study co-author Dr. David Roberts, a conservation scientist.

The study appears in the Journal of Human Evolution.