Archaeology breakthrough: Homo erectus skulls discovery in Africa rewrites human history

Researchers have uncovered the skulls of two individuals belonging to the Homo erectus species, one of our ancient ancestors, alongside several stone tools in Ethiopia. The tools in particular have excited scientists, being of differing complexity and shed new light on the use of technology by early humans.

The find refutes the “single species/single technology” of early Homo – the group of species which includes modern humans and several extinct relatives, including Homo erectus, according to a study published in the journal Science Advances.

In the fields of paleoanthropology and archaeology, stone tools are classified and therefore explained according to their complexity and time period in which they were used.

Mode I tools – also known as Oldowan tools – date back to more than a staggering two-and-a-half million years ago and are generally primitive in nature, usually consisting of stones that have had a handful of flakes chipped off.

This type of tool was succeeded by Mode II tools, or Acheulean, which appeared later, around 1.7million years ago.

These are more complex than their predecessors, having been shaped on both sides by human hands, such as prehistoric hand axes.

Researchers have previously suggested that Homo erectus invented Mode II tools, although this is highly contested among experts.

In the traditional “single species/single technology” view, each early hominid species, like Homo erectus, only used tools that were either Mode I or Mode II.

However, the authors of the latest study say their discovery supports the idea that Homo erectus in Africa invented Mode II tools.

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Should this be true, Mode I and Mode II tools might have been used by Homo erectus over hundreds of thousands of years.

Led by Sileshi Semaw from the Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre la Evolución Humana in Spain, the team uncovered Homo erectus skulls from two individuals at two different locations within an archaeological site in Gona, northern Ethiopia.

The site is famous for being the location of the oldest known Oldowan tools.

Dating one of the skulls – dubbed BSN12 – the scientists estimated it to be around 1.26million years old.

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The other, known as DAN5, has been placed at somewhere between 1.5 and 1.6million years old.

Michael Rogers, one of the authors of the study from Southern Connecticut State University, walked Newsweek through the findings.

He said: “At each site, we found H. erectus cranial fossils in direct association—i.e. found right next to and within the same strata—with both simple Mode I stone tools and more complex Mode II stone tools such as hand-axes and picks, purposefully shaped.

“Archaeologically, our study is noteworthy for 1.) documenting the direct association of hominin crania with both kinds of stone tools at multiple sites and 2.) raising the possibility that some H. erectus populations, at least at times, did not make Mode II tools, or made them rarely.

“For example, the younger BSN12 site has very few Mode II artefacts, and we could have very easily missed them, which would have led us to interpret the site as a ‘Mode I’ site.”

According to Mr Rogers, all of this indicates that some populations of Homo erectus made Mode I stone tools extensively and sometimes exclusively, depending on the need, availability of stone, and local traditions.

The findings even suggest that there was not a simple replacement of Mode I tools by Mode II technology once Homo erectus appeared on the scene, which is what many experts had previously thought.

Mr Rogers said: “Discovered first in Indonesia in the 1890’s, [H. erectus] have since been found at many sites in Eurasia and Africa, and lasted an incredibly long time, from around 1.8 to 0.3 million years ago.

“They are usually described as large-bodied—some as tall as us—with modern limb proportions and bigger-brained.

“They are also credited with inventing controlled fire, wooden spears, and cumulative culture. Some researchers consider H. erectus to be, in a broad sense, the immediate ancestor of us, Homo sapiens.”

He continued: “Anatomically they were essentially the same as us today from the neck down—some even had brain sizes that approach ours—and behaviorally they may have been the first to use technology (that is, stone tools, but probably also wooden tools) habitually.

“Earlier hominins made and used stone tools, but H. erectus may have been the first to start depending on them.”

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