Unknown Ancient People Made Elephant Bones 400,000 Years Ago To Cut Meat

An unknown group of ancient humans who lived about 400,000 years ago made “impressive tools” from elephant bones in unexpected ways, archaeologists say.

A collection of elephant bones was excavated between 1979 and 1991 at a site in Italy known as Castel di Guido, near modern Rome, and has since been re-analyzed by a team from the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Some of these remains date back 400,000 years, and an unknown community of ancient people living in the area turned them into an array of bone tools.

Some tools were made with advanced methods that wouldn’t become common until after 100,000 years, including a smoother made to handle leather that wasn’t thought to have been widely used until about 300,000 years ago, the authors said.

“We’re seeing other sites with bone tools right now,” said lead author Paola Villa, “but there’s not the variety of well-defined shapes” seen in this collection.

An unknown group of ancient humans who lived about 400,000 years ago made 'impressive tools' from elephant bones in unexpected ways, archaeologists say

An unknown group of ancient humans who lived about 400,000 years ago made ‘impressive tools’ from elephant bones in unexpected ways, archaeologists say

A collection of elephant bones was excavated between 1979 and 1991 at a site in Italy known as Castel di Guido, near modern Rome, and has since been re-analyzed by a team from the University of Colorado at Boulder.

A collection of elephant bones was excavated between 1979 and 1991 at a site in Italy known as Castel di Guido, near modern Rome, and has since been re-analyzed by a team from the University of Colorado at Boulder.

A collection of elephant bones was excavated between 1979 and 1991 at a site in Italy known as Castel di Guido, near modern Rome, and has since been re-analyzed by a team from the University of Colorado at Boulder.

PREPARING ELEPHANTS WITH STRAIGHT TUSKED UP TO 13ft HIGH

The long-extinct straight-tusked elephant reached an incredible height of 13 feet when alive.

Palaeoloxodon antiquus inhabited Europe and western Asia during the Middle and Late Pleistocene between about 780,000 and 30,000 years ago.

They were thought to live in small herds, reaching their peak during interglacial periods.

Their range extended into Great Britain during these peaks.

Complete skeletons are rare, but isolated tusks and bones have been discovered, and a dig near Rome has unearthed tools made from their bones.

They are thought to have died out in part due to human hunting – for bones to use as tools and for food.

The site at Castel di Guido, just on the outskirts of modern Rome, was home to a gully and stream 400,000 years ago, and it was used by 13-foot tall, straight-tusked elephants to quench their thirst, pass time bring and sometimes die.

Stone Age inhabitants made tools from their remains using a systematic, standardized approach, a bit like someone working on an assembly line.

“People broke the elephants’ long bones and produced standardized blanks to make bone tools,” Villa said.

The discovery was unexpected for the UC Boulder team, as this kind of tooling aptitude didn’t become common until much later in human history.

The feats of ingenuity came at an important time for hominids, as it coincided with the emergence of Neanderthals in Europe.

Although it is not clear which species made the bones, Villa suspects that the inhabitants of Castel di Guido were Neanderthals.

“About 400,000 years ago you start to see the usual use of fire, and it’s the beginning of the Neanderthal lineage,” the researcher explained.

Among the bones re-analyzed by Villa and colleagues were 98 tools made by the community in the settlement at the time.

This is the highest number of ‘flaked implements’ made by pre-modern humans to date, offering a wide variety of useful items.

The site at Castel di Guido, just on the outskirts of modern Rome, was home to a gully and stream 400,000 years ago, and it was used by 13-foot tall, straight-tusked elephants to quench their thirst, pass time bring and sometimes die

The site at Castel di Guido, just on the outskirts of modern Rome, was home to a gully and stream 400,000 years ago, and it was used by 13-foot tall, straight-tusked elephants to quench their thirst, pass time bring and sometimes die

The site at Castel di Guido, just on the outskirts of modern Rome, was home to a gully and stream 400,000 years ago, and it was used by 13-foot tall, straight-tusked elephants to quench their thirst, pass time bring and sometimes die

Some of these remains date back 400,000 years, and an unknown community of humans, believed to be Neanderthals, who inhabited the area turned them into an array of bone tools.

Some of these remains date back 400,000 years, and an unknown community of humans, believed to be Neanderthals, who inhabited the area turned them into an array of bone tools.

Some of these remains date back 400,000 years, and an unknown community of humans, believed to be Neanderthals, who inhabited the area turned them into an array of bone tools.

Some of the tools were pointed and could theoretically be used to cut meat, while others were wedges used for splitting heavy and long elephant bones.

“First you make a groove in which you can place these heavy pieces with a cutting edge,” Villa said. “Then you hit it and at some point the bone breaks.”

But one tool stood out from the rest: The team discovered a single artifact carved from a wild bovine bone that was long and smooth at one end.

It resembles what archaeologists call a ‘lissoir’, or a smoother, a type of tool that hominins used to treat leather, and it is this tool that sparked their curiosity, as they only became common in hominin communities about 300,000 years ago.

What the region could have taken a lot with, however, were dead elephants.  As the Stone Age progressed, straight-tusked elephants (reconstruction pictured) slowly disappeared from Europe.

What the region could have taken a lot with, however, were dead elephants.  As the Stone Age progressed, straight-tusked elephants (reconstruction pictured) slowly disappeared from Europe.

What the region could have taken a lot with, however, were dead elephants. As the Stone Age progressed, straight-tusked elephants (reconstruction pictured) slowly disappeared from Europe.

Some of the tools were pointed and could theoretically be used to cut meat, while others were wedges used for splitting heavy and long elephant bones

Some of the tools were pointed and could theoretically be used to cut meat, while others were wedges used for splitting heavy and long elephant bones

Some of the tools were pointed and could theoretically be used to cut meat, while others were wedges used for splitting heavy and long elephant bones

“In other locations 400,000 years ago, people just used the bone fragments they had available,” Villa said.

In other words, something special seemed to be happening on the Italian site.

Villa doesn’t think that Castel di Guido’s hominids were more intelligent than their counterparts elsewhere in Europe, but rather made use of what they had.

She explained that this region of Italy doesn’t have many naturally occurring, large pieces of flint, so ancient people couldn’t make many large stone tools.

What the region could have taken a lot with, however, were dead elephants. As the Stone Age progressed, straight-tusked elephants slowly disappeared from Europe.

Villa doesn't think Castel di Guido's humanoids were more intelligent than their counterparts elsewhere in Europe, but rather took advantage of what they had.

Villa doesn't think Castel di Guido's humanoids were more intelligent than their counterparts elsewhere in Europe, but rather took advantage of what they had.

Villa doesn’t think Castel di Guido’s humanoids were more intelligent than their counterparts elsewhere in Europe, but rather took advantage of what they had.

Among the bones re-analyzed by Villa and colleagues were 98 tools made by the community in the settlement at the time.

Among the bones re-analyzed by Villa and colleagues were 98 tools made by the community in the settlement at the time.

Among the bones re-analyzed by Villa and colleagues were 98 tools made by the community in the settlement at the time.

During the era of the boners of Castel di Guido, these animals may have flocked to the watering holes at the site and occasionally died of natural causes. People then found the remains and slaughtered them for their long bones.

“The people of Castel di Guido had a cognitive intellect that allowed them to produce complex bone technology,” Villa said.

“In other assemblies, there were enough bones for humans to make a few pieces, but not enough to begin standardized and systematic production of bone tools.”

So instead of humans being more advanced, the situation and the abundant supply of long bones in this one area led to an earlier adoption of new technology.

The findings are published in the journal PLOS One.

WHEN DID HUMAN ANIMALS FIRST ARISE?

The timeline of human evolution can be traced back millions of years. Experts estimate that the family tree goes like this:

55 million years ago – First primitive primates evolve

15 million years ago – Hominidae (great apes) evolve from the ancestors of the gibbon

7 million years ago – The first gorillas evolve. Later, chimpanzee and human sexes diverge

A recreation of a Neanderthal is depicted

A recreation of a Neanderthal is depicted

A recreation of a Neanderthal is depicted

5.5 million years ago – Ardipithecus, early ‘proto-human’ shares traits with chimpanzees and gorillas

4 million years ago – Monkey like early humans, the Australopithecines appeared. They had brains no bigger than a chimpanzee’s, but different, more human-like features

3.9-2.9 million years ago – Australoipithecus afarensis lived in Africa.

2.7 million years ago – Paranthropus, lived in forests and had huge jaws to chew on

2.6 million years ago – Hand axes become the first major technological innovation

2.3 million years ago – Homo habilis thought to have first appeared in Africa

1.85 million years ago – First ‘modern’ hand emerges

1.8 million years ago – Homo ergaster begins to appear in fossils

800,000 years ago – Early humans master fire and create fireplaces. Brain size is increasing rapidly

400,000 years agoO – Neanderthals first appear and spread across Europe and Asia

300,000 to 200,000 years ago – Homo sapiens – modern humans – appear in Africa

50,000 to 40,000 years ago – Modern people reach Europe

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