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Prehistoric “Swiss Army knife” shows how early humans communicated

[June 12, 2022: Claire Vince, Australian Museum]

Map and objects collected by Dr Paloma de la Pena and her team. (CREDIT: Dr Paloma de la Pena)

In a world first, a team of international scientists led by Australian Museum and University of Sydney archaeologist, Dr Amy Mosig Way have revealed that early humans across southern Africa made a particular type of stone tool - the backed artefact- in the same shape. Published in Scientific Reports the study clearly shows that the populations must have been in contact with each other.

The researchers reported that the Howiesons Poort backed artefacts, also known as the ‘stone Swiss Army knife’ of prehistory, were made to a similar template across great distances and multiple biomes. These artefacts were produced in enormous numbers across southern Africa at this time, roughly 65-60 thousand years ago.


Lead author Dr Way explained that these tools were made in many different shapes across the world and because the people across southern Africa all chose to make the tools look the same it indicates they must have been sharing information and communicating with each other, ie they were socially connected.

Dr Paloma de la Pena (CREDIT: Dr Paloma de la Pena)

“People have walked out of Africa for hundreds of thousands of years, and we have evidence for early Homo sapiens in Greece and the Levant from around 200 thousand years ago. But these earlier exits were overprinted by the big exit around 60-70 thousand years ago, which involved the ancestors of all modern people who live outside of Africa today,” Dr Way said.


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“Why was this exodus so successful where the earlier excursions were not? The main theory is that social networks were stronger at this time. This analysis shows for the first time that these social connections were in place in southern Africa just before the big exodus,” Dr Way added.

Senior Research Associate, McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, Cambridge University, Dr Paloma de la Peña, who studies the cultural behaviour of the early Homo sapiens, said the backed artefact has been associated with many different domestic activities such as cutting and scraping, and hunting activities (they were sometimes part of projectiles).


Backed piece sibudu (CREDIT: Dr Paloma de la Pena)

“While the making of the stone tool was not particularly difficult, the hafting of the stone to the handle through the use of glue and adhesives was hard, which highlights that they were sharing and communicating complex information with each other,” Dr de la Peña explained.

“What was also striking was that the abundance of tools made in the same shape coincided with great changes in the climatic conditions. We believe that this is a social response to the changing environment across southern Africa,” Dr de la Pena added.

Chief Scientist, Australian Museum, Professor Kristofer Helgen said that like us, ancient humans relied on cooperation and social networking, and this research provides early dated observation of this behaviour.

“Examining why early human populations were successful is critical to understanding our evolutionary path. This research provides new insights into our understanding of those social networks and how they contributed to the expansion of modern humans across Eurasia,” Professor Helgen said


Dr Way said another fascinating fact about this particular tool – the backed artifact – is that it was made independently by many different groups of people across the world, including here in Australia.

“I compared some of the Australian shapes from five thousand years ago with the African shapes 65 thousand years ago (as they can’t possibly be related), to show the southern African tools all cluster within a much larger range of possible shapes,” Dr Way said.

In southern Africa, previous research by Dr de la Peña has shown that backed artefacts were used as barbs in hunting technology. In Australia, Australian Museum Senior Fellow, archaeologist, Dr Val Attenbrow has shown that in addition to forming armatures in spears, these artefacts were also used for a variety of functions and purposes, such as working bone and hide and drilling and shaping wooden objects.

For more science and technology stories check out our New Discoveries section at The Brighter Side of News.


Note: Materials provided above by Australian Museum. Content may be edited for style and length.


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