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February 14, 2009

First Globetrotters Had Primitive Toolkits

Tools.jpgEver since researchers found fossils of Homo erectus beneath a medieval castle in Dmanisi, Georgia, they have been chipping away at the image of this venerable human ancestor. At 1.8 million years old, the fossils at Dmanisi are the earliest members of the human family known outside of Africa. Now, it turns out that they managed to trek all the way across Africa and the Middle East with the most primitive kind of stone tools known, rather than with more sophisticated stone hand axes that were thought to be essential for intercontinental travel. The textbook vision of the first world traveler has changed, says paleoanthropologist David Lordkipanidze of the Georgian National Museum in Tbilisi.

This is the third time Lordkipanidze's team has revised the textbook view of H. erectus, suggesting that it was more primitive than expected. First, his group published the brain size of the fossils at Dmanisi, which had a volume of just 650 cubic centimeters--not much larger than an australopithecine's brain volume of 450 cc. Then, the team found leg bones and announced that the Dmanisi people were short, even calling them "little people." Now, they have found Oldowan, Mode 1 stone tools at Dmanisi (see picture), not the retouched Acheulean hand axes that were a kind of Swiss Army knife for H. erectus in Africa.

By now, though, other researchers in the audience are nonplussed by reports of how primitive the Dmanisi fossils are. "I'm not at all surprised," says paleoanthropologist Robert Blumenschine of Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, who does research at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, where the first Oldowan tools were found. He says it's not uncommon to find evidence of both types of technologies in the same fossil locality--the same groups of hominids probably used a mix of old, familiar Oldowan tools and more cutting-edge hand axes for different jobs. "The Oldowan tools were still good tools--they used them for different things," says Blumenschine. There was no such thing as technological obsolescence--yet.
--Ann Gibbons