New archaeological findings from Nyayanga, Kenya suggest that Oldowan technology – the earliest known stone tool industry in prehistory – was more ancient and widespread than previously believed, researchers report. They say the Oldowan tools they found were used to process a variety of foods, including ancient hippopotamuses, at least 600,000 years earlier than evidence at other Oldowan sites has suggested. And although it remains unknown which genera of hominin were using the Nyayanga Oldowan tools, the authors note the discovery of contemporaneous Paranthropus fossils at the site, which are also the first yet identified in southwestern Kenya. Previously, the oldest Oldowan tool sites, from around 2.6 million years ago (mya), were confined to Ethiopia’s Afar Triangle. Their appearance represented a technological milestone in early hominin development. Despite their rudimentary nature, these intentionally crafted, sharp-edged stone tools were the first geographically widespread and long-lasting technology. Although Oldowan is often attributed to the genus Homo, it’s thought that multiple other overlapping hominins may have made and/or used the early tools. However, due to a lack of early Oldowan sites, scientists still don’t understand the technology’s emergence, use and distribution. Thomas Plummer and colleagues report the discovery of Oldowan sites dated to 3-2.6 mya at Nyayanga, Kenya. Not only were Oldowan tools present, but fossilized bones from the sites with associated stone-tool damage demonstrate the tools were used to butcher large animals, namely hippopotamids and bovids. Furthermore, use-wear patterns on the tools themselves suggest the processing of plant materials. While no Homo remains were identified at Nyayanga, Plummer et al. did identify Paranthropus fossils at the site – 2 molars – one of which was in clear association with Oldowan artifacts, raising the possibility that these hominins made or were at least using the stone tools. “The late Pliocene expanded geography of the earliest Oldowan, and new evidence of its use in diverse tasks amplifies our understanding of the adaptive advantage of early stone technology in hominin diet and foraging technology,” write Plummer et al.
Expanded geographic distribution and dietary strategies of the earliest Oldowan hominins and Paranthropus
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