Ancient Tools Discovered in New Excavation Shed Light on Human Behavior

3_16_Olorgesailie Achulean Handaxes  MSA points  pigments (1)
The first evidence of human life in the Olorgesailie Basin comes from about 1.2 million years ago. For hundreds of the thousands of years, people living there made and used large stone-cutting tools called hand axes (left). The sophisticated tools (right) were carefully crafted and more specialized than the large, all-purpose hand axes. Human Origins Program, Smithsonian

Coloring utensils and other tools found in eastern Africa reveal humans likely became sophisticated much earlier than scientists previously thought, according to new research.

An international team of archaeologists believe that some of the materials were gathered miles away from southern Kenya's Olorgesailie Basin site, which may indicate social networks were formed about 320,000 years ago—100,000 years earlier than previous estimates.

3_15_Allison Brooks
Alison Brooks, professor of anthropology at The George Washington University, and Rick Potts, director of the Smithsonian’s Human Origins Program, look over an excavation site at the Olorgesailie Basin. Credit: Allison Brooks

In one of the three studies published Thursday in the journal Science, the team discussed the exchange of materials, including obsidian, an indigenous rock formed by volcanoes.

"The obsidian transport and the collection and processing of pigments imply an early development of social networks connecting members of our species," Alison Brooks, study author and an anthropology professor at The George Washington University, said in a statement. "This practice is characteristic of our species, but in contrast to our closest primate relatives, and is not implied by the material record of the preceding early Stone Age levels at Olorgesailie."

Thousands of tools have been found at the archaeological site in the past, but they looked much different. The tools were larger and not as carefully crafted as the new ones. In another one of the three Science publications, the researchers discuss extreme environmental changes—including earthquakes and long periods of drought—which could have likely caused early humans to change their lifestyles and the tools they used.

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"This change to a very sophisticated set of behaviors that involved greater mental abilities and more complex social lives may have been the leading edge that distinguished our lineage from other early humans," Rick Potts, study author and director of the Smithsonian Human Origins Program, said in a statement.

One belief among the scientific community is that life evolved gradually as the environment shifted; however, based on their new findings, Potts and his colleagues believe the shift was much more rapid.