65,000-year-old ‘stone Swiss Army knives’ show early humans had long-distance social networks
Humans are the only species living in every environmental niche in the world – from the ice sheets to the deserts, rainforests to savannas. As individuals we are quite puny, but when we are socially connected we are the most dominant species on Earth.
New evidence of stone tools in southern Africa shows that these social connections were stronger and wider than we imagined among our ancestors who lived about 65,000 years ago, shortly before the great “out of Africa” migration in which they began to spread across the globe.
Social connection and adaptation
The early humans weren’t always so connected. The first people to leave Africa extinct without this migration success and without leaving any genetic trace among us.
But for the ancestors of today’s people who lived outside of Africa, it was a different story. Within a few thousand years they had migrated and adapted to every type of environmental zone around the planet.
Archaeologists believe that the development of social networks and the ability to share knowledge between different groups was the key to this success. But how do we observe these social networks in the deep past?
To address this question, archaeologists are examining tools and other man-made objects that still exist today. We assume that the people who made these objects, like people today, were social beings who made objects with cultural meanings.
Social connectivity 65,000 years ago
A small, ordinary stone tool gave us the opportunity to test this idea in southern Africa, during a period known as the Howiesons Gate about 65,000 years ago. Archaeologists refer to these sharp, multi-purpose tools as ‘backed artifacts’, but you can think of them as a ‘stone Swiss Army knife’: the kind of handy tool you carry with you to perform various tasks that you can’t do by hand. .
These knives are not unique to Africa. They occur all over the world and come in many different forms. This potential variety makes these little blades so useful for testing the hypothesis that social connections existed more than 60,000 years ago.
In southern Africa, these sheets could are made in a number of different shapes in different places. About 65,000 years ago, however, they appear to have been created according to a very similar template over thousands of miles and multiple ecological niches.
The fact that they were all so similar points to strong social ties between geographically distant groups in southern Africa at the time.
Importantly, this shows for the first time that there were social connections in southern Africa just before the great “out of Africa” migration.
A useful tool in difficult times
It was previously thought that people made these knives in response to various environmental stressesbecause just like the Swiss army knife, they are multifunctional and multifunctional.
Evidence suggests that the stone blades were often glued or tied to handles or shafts to make complex tools, such as spears, knives, saws, scrapers and drills, and were used as points and barbs for arrows. They were used to process vegetable matter, skin, feathers and fur.
While making the stone blade wasn’t particularly difficult, bonding the stone to the handle was, with complex glue and glue recipes.
During the Howiesons Poort, these blades were produced in huge numbers in southern Africa.
Data from Sibudu Cave in South Africa shows that their peak production occurred during a very dry period, when there was less rain and vegetation. These tools were manufactured thousands of years before Howiesons Gate, but it is during this period of changing climatic conditions that we see a phenomenal increase in their production.
It is the multi-functionality and multi-functionality that makes this stone tool so flexible, a key advantage for hunting and gathering in precarious or unstable environmental conditions.
A strong social network adapted to a changing climate
However, the production of this tool cannot currently be seen as just a functional response to changing environmental conditions.
If their proliferation was simply a functional response to changing conditions, then we should see differences in different environmental niches. But what we see is similarity in production numbers and artifact shape over great distances and different environmental zones.
This means that the increase in production should be seen as part of a socially mediated response to changing environmental conditions, strengthening long-distance social ties and facilitating access to scarce, perhaps unpredictable resources.
The resemblance in the “Swiss Army Knife” stone in southern Africa provides insight into the strength of social ties during this important period of human evolution. Their resemblance suggests that it was the power of this social network that allowed the population to thrive and adapt to changing climatic conditions.
These findings have global implications for understanding how the growing social networks have contributed to the expansion of modern humans out of Africa and into new environments around the world.
Prehistoric Swiss Army Knife Indicates Early Humans Communicated
Amy M. Way et al, Howiesons Poort-supported artifacts provide evidence for social connectivity in southern Africa during the last Pleistocene, Scientific Reports (2022). DOI: 10.1038/s41598-022-12677-5
Quote: 65,000-year-old ‘stone Swiss army knives’ show early humans had long-distance social networks (2022, June 10) retrieved June 10, 2022 from https://phys.org/news/2022-06-year-old- stone-swiss-army-knives.html
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