Flaked stones and old bones: Biological and cultural evolution at the dawn of technology


  • Thomas Plummer

    Corresponding author
    1. Department of Anthropology, Queens College, CUNY, and New York Consortium in Evolutionary Primatology, Flushing, New York 11367
    • Department of Anthropology, Queens College, CUNY, 65-30 Kissena Blvd., Flushing, NY 11367
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The appearance of Oldowan sites ca. 2.6 million years ago (Ma) may reflect one of the most important adaptive shifts in human evolution. Stone artifact manufacture, large mammal butchery, and novel transport and discard behaviors led to the accumulation of the first recognized archaeological debris. The appearance of the Oldowan sites coincides with generally cooler, drier, and more variable climatic conditions across Africa, probably resulting in a net decrease in woodland foods and an increase in large mammal biomass compared to the early and middle Pliocene. Shifts in plant food resource availability may have provided the stimulus for incorporating new foods into the diet, including meat from scavenged carcasses butchered with stone tools. Oldowan artifact form varies with clast size, shape, raw material physical properties, and flaking intensity. Oldowan hominins preferred hard raw materials with good fracture characteristics. Habitual stone transport is evident from technological analysis, and raw material sourcing to date suggests that stone was rarely moved more than 2–3 km from source. Oldowan debris accumulation was spatially redundant, reflecting recurrent visitation of attractive points on the landscape. Thin archaeological horizons from Bed I Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania, were probably formed and buried in less than 10 years and document hominin processing of multiple carcasses per year. Transport beyond simple refuging behavior is suggested by faunal density at some site levels. By 2.0 Ma, hominin rank within the predatory guild may have been moderately high, as they probably accessed meaty carcasses through hunting and confrontational scavenging, and hominin-carnivore competition appears minimal at some sites. It is likely that both Homo habilis sensu stricto and early African H. erectus made Oldowan tools. H. habilis sensu stricto was more encephalized than Australopithecus and may foreshadow H. erectus in lower limb elongation and some thermoregulatory adaptations to hot, dry climatic conditions. H. erectus was large and wide-ranging, had a high total energy expenditure, and required a high-quality diet. Reconstruction of H. erectus reproductive energetics and socioeconomic organization suggests that reproductively active females received assistance from other group members. This inference, combined with archaeological evidence for acquisition of meaty carcasses, suggests that meat would have been a shared food. This is indirectly confirmed by nutritional analysis suggesting that the combination of meat and nutritionally dense plant foods was the likely diet fueling body size increase and encephelization in Homo. Most discussion of Oldowan hominin behavior and ecology, including that presented here, is based on materials from a few sites. There is a critical need to analyze additional large, primary-context lithic and faunal assemblages to better assess temporal, geographic, and environmental variability in Oldowan behavior. Yrbk Phys Anthropol 47:118–164, 2004. © 2004 Wiley-Liss, Inc.