This evidence of early innovation pushes back the human evolutionary timeline, effectively rewriting history and everything we knew about our ancestors. This also means that complex human cultures are much older than previously thought.
An international group of scientists has discovered that more than 320,000 years ago, humans were much more developed than initially thought.
The new discovery proves how ancient people developed impressive social structures and technological innovations used color pigments and manufactured more sophisticated tools than previously thought.
Image Credit: Human Origins Program, Smithsonian
As noted by the Smithsonian, these newly discovered activities approximately date to the oldest known fossil record of Homo sapiens and occur tens of thousands of years earlier than previous evidence has shown in eastern Africa.
Evidence for mankind’s ancient milestones originates from the Olorgesailie Basin in southern Kenya, where experts have excavated an archaeological site that offers an unprecedented record of early human life spanning more than a million years.
Archeologists say that many of the tools discovered on the site were crafted from obsidian – a hard, dark, glass-like volcanic rock.
In addition to the numerous tools, experts also found that ancient cultures used color pigments much sooner than previously thought.
The new findings are reported in three different studies published in the journal Science. The papers suggest that trading of different artifacts emerged during a period of tremendous environmental upheaval in the region when earthquakes ravaged the area and temperatures, and the climate, in general, fluctuated between wet and dry periods.
The Excavation site in Kenya. Image credit: Human Origins Program, Smithsonian
“This change to a very sophisticated set of behaviors that involved greater mental abilities and more complex social lives may have been the leading edge that distinguished our lineage from other early humans,” said Dr Rick Potts, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History’s human origins program in the United States, and author of one of the three studies.
Experts say that trading networks, early communication, and technological innovation helped ancient people survive by obtaining all necessary resources they needed through crafting or trading.
Dr. Potts notes that first evidence of human life in the Olorgesailie Basin dates back to around 1.2 million years ago.
There, for hundreds of thousands of years, people living in the region used large stone-cutting tools called handaxes. In addition to being used as tools, researchers have found evidence that some were also used as projectile weapons, while others were shaped into tools to craft and sculpt wood.
Then, in 2002, researchers discovered smaller, more carefully shaped tools in the Olorgesailie Basin.
Using isotopic dating, researchers found that the tools were incredibly old; between 320,000 and 305,000 years ago. These tools, researchers note, were carefully crafted and were more specialized than the all-purpose handaxes.
Furthermore, experts found that the smaller, more sophisticated handaxes were crafted from a wide range of obsidian, not found locally, but up to 90 kilometers away.
The Smithsonian team found small stone points (above) made of non-local obsidian at their Middle Stone Age sites. Image credit: Human Origins Program, Smithsonian
In addition, experts discovered black and red rocks, evidence that the rocks had been ‘processed’ for use as a coloring material.
“We don’t know what the coloring was used on, but the coloring is often taken by archaeologists as the root of complex symbolic communication. Just as color is used today in clothing or flags to express identity, these pigments may have helped people communicate membership in alliances and maintain ties with distant groups.”
After integrating data from a variety of sources, researchers wanted to understand what may have driven such changes in early human behavior. Their findings suggest that the period when these changes appeared was one of changing landscapes and climate, and resources would have been extremely scarce.
Scientists discovered that geological, geochemical, paleobotanical and faunal evidence indicates that an extended period of climate instability affected the region, beginning approximately 360,000 years ago.
Featured image credit: Human Origins Program, Smithsonian