The larger brains and smaller teeth of early Homo are linked to a different adaptive strategy than that of earlier hominins: one dependent on modifying rocks to make stone tools and exploit new food sources. As discussed in Chapter 9, the 3.3-million-year-old stone tools from the Lomekwi 3 site in Kenya were made by earlier hominin species than Homo. However, stone tools become more frequent at sites dating to about 2 million years ago, the time of Homo habilis (Roche et al. 2009). This suggests that these hominins were increasingly reliant on stone tools to make a living.
Stone tools are assigned a good deal of importance in the study of human origins. Examining the form of the tools, the raw materials selected, and how they were made and used can provide insight into the thought processes of early humans and how they modified their environment in order to survive. Paleoanthropologists have traditionally classified collections of stone tools into industries, based on their form and mode of manufacture. There is not an exact correspondence between a tool industry and a hominin species; however, some general associations can be made between tool industries and particular hominins, locations, and time periods.
The Oldowan tool industry is named after the site of Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania where the tools were first discovered. The time period of the Oldowan is generally estimated to be 2.5 mya to 1.6 mya. The tools of this industry are described as “flake and chopper” tools—the choppers consisting of stone cobbles with a few flakes struck off them (Figure 10.9). To a casual observer, these tools might not look much different from randomly broken rocks. However, they are harder to make than their crude appearance suggests. The rock selected as the core must be struck by the rock serving as a hammerstone at just the right angle so that one or more flat flakes are removed. This requires selecting rocks that will fracture predictably instead of chunking, as well as the ability to plan ahead and envision the steps needed to create the finished product. The process leaves both the core and the flakes with sharp cutting edges that can be used for a variety of purposes.
What were the hominins doing with the tools? One key activity seems to have been butchering animals. Studies of animal bones at the site show cut marks on bones, and leg bones are often cracked open, suggesting that they were extracting the marrow from the bone cavities. It is interesting to consider whether the hominins hunted these animals or acquired them through other means. The butchered bones come from a variety of African mammals, ranging from small antelope to animals as big as wildebeest and elephants! It is difficult to envision slow, small-bodied Homo habilis with their Oldowan tools bringing down such large animals. One possibility is that the hominins were scavenging carcasses from lions and other large cats. Paleoanthropologist Robert Blumenschine has investigated this hypothesis by observing the behavior of present-day animal carnivores and scavengers on the African savanna. When lions abandon a kill after eating their fill, scavenging animals arrive almost immediately to pick apart the carcass. By the time slow-footed hominins arrived on the scene, the carcass would be mostly stripped of meat. However, if hominins could use stone tools to break into the leg bone cavities, they could get to the marrow, a fatty, calorie-dense source of protein (Blumenschine et al. 1987). Reconstructing activities that happened millions of years ago is obviously a difficult undertaking, and paleoanthropologists continue to debate whether scavenging or hunting was more commonly practiced during this time.
Regardless of how they were acquiring the meat, these activities suggest an important dietary shift from the way that the australopithecines were eating. The Oldowan toolmakers were exploiting a new ecological niche that provided them with more protein and calories. And it was not just limited to meat-eating—stone tool use could have made available numerous other subsistence opportunities. A study of microscopic wear patterns on a sample of Oldowan tools indicates that they were used for processing plant materials such as wood, roots or tubers, and grass seeds and stems (Lemorini et al. 2014). In fact, it has been pointed out that the Oldowan toolmakers’ cutting ability (whether for the purposes of consuming meat and plants or for making tools, shelters, or clothing) represents a new and unique innovation, never seen before in the natural world (Roche et al. 2009).
Overall, increasing the use of stone tools allowed hominins to expand their ecological niche and exert more control over their environment. As we’ll see shortly, this pattern continued and became more pronounced with Homo erectus.