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Early stone age populations in Tanzania made cutting tools that were optimized for different applications

Early Stone Age populations living in northern Tanzania about 1.2 million years ago made cutting tools that were optimized for their intended use, a study found.

The Olduvai gorge was occupied by early people for more than 1.8 million years, with stone tools found on the site about 1.85-1.2 million years ago.

The region has three suitable stone materials for making tools – chert, quartzite and basalt derived from lava flows – all of which were used by populations from the Stone Age.

Researchers used modern engineering techniques to investigate the material properties of flakes from each of the three stones when they were used as cutting tools.

They discovered that the three stones have different levels of edge sharpness and durability that would make each suitable for different applications.

This could explain the variety of tools in the Olduvai gorge – and why sharp and durable choir seems to have been preferred where available for small tools.

The durability of basalt, on the other hand, could explain why the volcanic rock constitutes so many large tools such as hand axes that should have lasted longer.

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Early Stone Age populations living in northern Tanzania about 1.2 million years ago made cutting tools that were optimized for their intended use, a study found. Pictured, a flake

Early Stone Age populations living in northern Tanzania about 1.2 million years ago made cutting tools that were optimized for their intended use, a study found. Pictured, a flake

Archaeologist Alastair Key from the University of Kent and colleagues used modern experimental engineering techniques to assess the edge sharpness and durability of freshly flaked samples of basalt, kert and quartzite collected from the gap.

The team did this by determining the force, work, and material deformation that was needed when using flakes of any material to cut samples from PVC pipes with a diameter of 2 mm.

PVC has been chosen to test cutting, because – as a tool is applied to it – it deforms before a physical cut occurs, just like biological materials such as muscle tissue.

The researchers found significant differences in the physical properties of the three tool making materials.

Freshly made flakes of quartzite and chert from the Olduvai gorge turned out to be considerably sharper than those made from basalt.

Although the quartzite flakes were slightly sharper, the team discovered that chert made edges that were slightly more durable than quartzite.

Meanwhile, basalt flakes – the least sharp – turned out to have the most durable edges.

The Olduvai gorge region has three suitable stone materials for making tools - choir, quartzite (photo) and basalt derived from lava flows - all of which were used by Stone Age populations from about 1.85 - 1.2 million years ago

The Olduvai gorge region has three suitable stone materials for making tools - choir, quartzite (photo) and basalt derived from lava flows - all of which were used by Stone Age populations from about 1.85 - 1.2 million years ago

The Olduvai gorge region has three suitable stone materials for making tools - choir, quartzite and basalt derived from lava flows (photo) - all of which were used by Stone Age populations from about 1.85 - 1.2 million years ago

The Olduvai gorge region has three suitable stone materials for making tools - choir, quartzite and basalt derived from lava flows (photo) - all of which were used by Stone Age populations from about 1.85 - 1.2 million years ago

The Olduvai gorge region has three suitable stone materials for making tools – chert, quartzite (pictured left) and basalt derived from lava flows (right) – all of which were used by Stone Age populations from about 1.85-1.2 million years ago

University of Kent archaeologist Alastair Key and colleagues used modern experimental engineering techniques, pictured, to assess edge sharpness and durability of freshly flaked samples of basalt, kert and quartzite collected from the gap

University of Kent archaeologist Alastair Key and colleagues used modern experimental engineering techniques, pictured, to assess edge sharpness and durability of freshly flaked samples of basalt, kert and quartzite collected from the gap

University of Kent archaeologist Alastair Key and colleagues used modern experimental engineering techniques, pictured, to assess edge sharpness and durability of freshly flaked samples of basalt, kert and quartzite collected from the gap

“These substantive differences had potential influence on the behavior of selection of raw material selection during the early Stone Age in Olduvai,” the researchers wrote in their paper.

‘Each [material] has advantages and should preferably have been chosen depending on the usage context of a tool, “she added.

The findings, the team suggests, may explain why Olduvai’s sharpest tooling material – quartzite – is preferably used for flake tools, with the slightly more durable but less common choir used instead.

Basalt durability, on the other hand, may have been more desirable – and overrule concerns about sharpness – for those large cutting tools such as hand shafts that were expected to last longer.

This, the researchers said, could explain the proliferation of large basalt-based cutting tools at some of the early human locations in the gap.

They make such decisions to optimize tool material selection for a particular activity, they conclude, “represents previously unprecedented complexity in how functional resource considerations were flexibly managed by multiple hominids.

University of Kent archaeologist Alastair Key and colleagues used modern experimental engineering techniques, pictured, to assess edge sharpness and durability of freshly flaked samples of basalt, kert and quartzite collected from the gap

University of Kent archaeologist Alastair Key and colleagues used modern experimental engineering techniques, pictured, to assess edge sharpness and durability of freshly flaked samples of basalt, kert and quartzite collected from the gap

Archaeologist Alastair Key from the University of Kent and colleagues used modern experimental engineering techniques, pictured, to assess the edge sharpness and durability of freshly flaked samples of basalt, kert and quartzite collected from the gap

PVC was chosen to test cutting, because ¿if you use a tool on it, it deforms before a physical cut occurs, just like biological materials such as muscle tissue. On the photo, quartzite chips are tested on materials

PVC was chosen to test cutting, because ¿if you use a tool on it, it deforms before a physical cut occurs, just like biological materials such as muscle tissue. On the photo, quartzite chips are tested on materials

PVC has been chosen to test cutting, because – as a tool is applied to it – it deforms before a physical cut occurs, just like biological materials such as muscle tissue. On the photo, quartzite chips are tested on materials

Olduvai Gorge was occupied by early people for more than 1.8 million years, with stone tools found at the location of about 1.85-1.2 million years ago. Pictured, this stone tool dates from Olduvai dating from 1.8 million years ago and is the oldest artifact in the British Museum

Olduvai Gorge was occupied by early people for more than 1.8 million years, with stone tools found at the location of about 1.85-1.2 million years ago. Pictured, this stone tool dates from Olduvai dating from 1.8 million years ago and is the oldest artifact in the British Museum

Olduvai Gorge was occupied by early people for more than 1.8 million years, with stone tools found on the site about 1.85-1.2 million years ago. Pictured, this stone tool dates from Olduvai dating from 1.8 million years ago and is the oldest artifact in the British Museum

More research may be needed before the findings can be extrapolated to other locations of human occupation from the Stone Age, the researchers said.

“However, it should be noted that the cutting performance of chert, quartzite and basalt included here is specific to Olduvai Gorge,” they wrote.

That is why they added: “Caution is required before applying these results to comparable raw materials (in particular quartzite) from other locations.”

The full findings of the study were published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface.

The Olduvai gorge in northern Tanzania, pictured, was occupied by early people for more than 1.8 million years, with stone tools found on the site about 1.85-1.2 million years ago

The Olduvai gorge in northern Tanzania, pictured, was occupied by early people for more than 1.8 million years, with stone tools found on the site about 1.85-1.2 million years ago

The Olduvai Gorge in Northern Tanzania, pictured, was occupied by early people for more than 1.8 million years, with stone tools found on the site about 1.85-1.2 million years ago

The Olduvai gorge in northern Tanzania was occupied by early people for more than 1.8 million years, with stone tools found on the site about 1.85 to 1.2 million years ago

The Olduvai gorge in northern Tanzania was occupied by early people for more than 1.8 million years, with stone tools found on the site about 1.85 to 1.2 million years ago

The Olduvai gorge in northern Tanzania was occupied by early people for more than 1.8 million years, with stone tools found on the site about 1.85-1.2 million years ago

WHEN did PEOPLE start using TOOLS?

It is hard for scientists to say exactly when people started making tools, because the more primitive remains look more like a natural object than a human artifact.

The oldest known instruments are the Oldowan stone tools from Ethiopia, which are approximately 2.6 million years old.

The Acheulean tool technology period – up to 1.76 million years ago – contained large stone hand axes made from flint and quartzite.

Towards the end of this period the tools became more refined and the so-called Levallois technique followed, in which scrapers, cutting machines, needles and flattened needles were made.

About 50,000 years ago, more sophisticated and specialized flint tools were made and used by Neanderthals, and it is believed that the tools at this stage were made of bone.

As human culture progressed, artifacts such as fishhooks, knots and bone needles were used.

Cut marks were found on the bones of animals whose date was 3.4 million years old – around the time a squatted ape-like ancestor named Australopithecus afarensis – known as Lucy – roamed through Africa.

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