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In new discovery, Israeli researchers find early humans used ‘chopping tools’ to break animal bones, consume bone marrow

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The flint tools in question, which were known as ‘chopping tools’, were found at the prehistoric site of Revadim, located east of Ashdod


In a fascinating revelation, researchers from Tel Aviv University have found that stone tools used by early humans for chopping, were also used to break open the bones of animals such as cattle, fallow deer and gazelles, and extract the nutritious bone marrow.

“Tools of this type were used for over two million years,” explained the researchers from TAU’s Sonia and Marco Nadler Institute of Archaeology. “They were found in large quantities at prehistoric sites all over the Old World, but no one understood their exact function.”

The flint tools in question, which were known as “chopping tools”, were found at the prehistoric site of Revadim, located east of Ashdod. 

According to TAU, the team applied advanced research methods to examined use-wear traces on 53 chopping tools discovered at the site, as well as organic residues found on some of the tools. 

“They also made and used replicas of the tools, with methods of experimental archaeology,” the university said. 

The researchers were able to deduce that tools of this type, which have also been found at numerous sites in Africa, Europe and Asia, were used by prehistoric humans “to neatly break open bones” of medium-size animals and possibly also cattle, in order to extract the nutritious high-calory bone marrow.

Touting this monumental find, Prof Ran Barkai, who was one of the TAU archeologists conducting the study, said that the team has spent years studying stone tools from prehistoric sites in Israel, in order to understand their functions. 

“One important source of tools is Revadim, an open-air site – as opposed to a cave – dating back to 500,000 to 300,000 years before our time, and rich with remarkably well-preserved findings,” he said. “Over the years, we have discovered that Revadim was a highly favored site, reinhabited over and over again by humans, most probably of the late Homo Erectus species.”  

He added that “bones of many types of game, including elephants, cattle, deer, gazelles and others, were found at the site.”

Prof. Ran Barkai producing a replica of a chopping tool in order to be used in experimental marrow extraction. (Photo Credit: Prof. Ran Barkai)

According to the team, the prehistoric inhabitants of Revadim developed an effective multipurpose toolkit, which is not unlike the toolkits of today’s tradesmen. 

Barkai pointed out that the chopping tool was invented in Africa about 2.6 million years ago, and later migrated with humans wherever they went over the next two million years. 

“Large quantities of these tools have been found at almost every prehistoric site throughout the Old World – in Africa, Europe, the Middle East and even China – evidence for their great importance. 

After discovering the functions of some of the other stone tools found at the site, the researchers went on to analyze 53 chopping tools from Revadim, looking for use-wear traces and organic residues. 

“Many specimens were found to exhibit substantial edge damage as a result of chopping hard materials, and some also showed residues of animal bones, preserved for almost half a million years,” the researchers said.

Until now, Barkai added, these “‘chopping tools’ had never been subjected to methodical lab testing to find out what they were actually used for.”

Following these findings, experimental archaeology was also applied in which the researchers collected flint pebbles from the vicinity of Revadim, “manufactured replicas of prehistoric chopping tools and used them to break open bones of dead medium-size animals.”

The researchers emphasized that “comparisons between the use-wear traces and organic residues on the replicated tools and those on the prehistoric originals significantly substantiated the study’s conclusions.”

Barkai stressed that early humans broke animal bones in two to extract bone marrow and that doing so “requires great skill and precision because shattering the bone would damage the bone marrow.”  

“The chopping tool which we examined in this study, was evidently outstandingly popular because it was easy to make and highly effective for this purpose,” he said. “This is apparently the reason for its enormous distribution over such a long period of time.”

Concluding, Barkai said that this study “has expanded our knowledge of the toolkit of early humans – one more step toward understanding their way of life, tracking their migrations, and unraveling the secrets of human evolution.”

The study was conducted by Dr. Flavia Venditti of the University of Tübingen and Prof. Ran Barkai and Dr. Aviad Agam of the Sonia and Marco Nadler Institute of Archaeology at Tel Aviv University, in collaboration with the Laboratory of Technological and Functional Analyses of Prehistoric Artefacts (Sapienza, University of Rome) and researchers from Sapienza, University of Rome. The paper was published in January 2021 in the PLOS One Journal.

*Featured Image: A chopping tool from late Acheulian Revadim. (Photo Credit: Prof. Ran Barkai)

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