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Israeli archeologists rediscover world’s oldest-known abrading tool in Israel

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The team from the University of Haifa’s Zinman Institute of Archeology explained that the stone was found on Mount Carmel and is believed to date back 350,000 years


Israeli archeologists have found the world’s oldest-known cobble scraping and abrading tool in Israel. 

The team from the University of Haifa’s Zinman Institute of Archeology explained that it was found on Mount Carmel and is believed to date back 350,000 years. 

A new study on the momentous find, published by Dr. Ron Shimelmitz, Dr. Iris Gruman-Yaroslavsky, Prof. Mina Weinstein-Evron and Prof. Danny Rosenberg, explains how the cobble tool was used for eroding various materials hundreds of thousands of years ago.

The study goes on to highlight that this tool was created many years before Homo sapiens arrived in the area.

The tool, a rounded dolomite cobble with microscopic abrasion marks, was found in Mount Carmel’s Tabun Cave. Today, the cave is considered one of the flagship sites of pre-history in Israel and around the world. The dolomite cobble dates back 150,000 years before any other such tool was thought to have been used. 

“The extraordinary discovery from Tabun Cave shows that hominins processed various materials using the cobble abrading tool about 350,000 years ago, which signifies that at an early stage very significant ‘technology’ was added to their ‘toolbox,’” the archeologists said. Such a tool allowed the hominids to process different materials “in a variety of ways to improve and maximize the ways in which they utilized environmental resources.”

The Tabun Cave is considered to be a unique site that has uncovered a sequence of archaeological strata that indicate hominin activity that includes human species and ancient humans, over the last half a million years. It is a site that is “key to the study of human evolution.”

Although the cobble tool itself was discovered in the 1960s, not much research was done on it and its further study was part of a new project led by Shimelmitz, Weinstein-Evron and other partners in Israel and around the world, which re-examined findings from past excavations at the site.

While doing further research, Shimelmitz noticed that one of the stones showed clear abrasion marks, that were found from much later stone tools but not on ancient ones.

Careful research of the item at the Zinman Institute of Archeology’s laboratories where it was studied under the microscope and through other means. The results of the study showed that the cobble abrading tool did indeed bear characteristic signs indicating that the ancient vessel was operated in a horizontal motion – from side to side, which means it was probably used for grinding.

Featured Image: The world’s oldest-known cobble abrading tool was found in Israel.
Above Image: The Tabun Cave on Mount Carmel where the abrading stone was found.
(Photo Credits: University of Haifa)

To further understand and interpret the patterns they’d identified under the microscope, the researchers then conducted a series of controlled grinding experiments using dolomite pebbles collected in Carmel and similar in their characteristics to pebbles from a tabun cave. 

In these experiments, different materials were eroded over different periods of time with the help of the pebbles, which were immediately subjected to a microscopic examination, in which the erosion models created in the experiments were documented. 

Grumman-Yaroslavsky pointed out that while the results did not show a perfect match between the abrasion patterns documented on the unique abrading tool and those documented in the experimental study, “we did find many similarities to the abrasion marks on the tool… and were able to conclude that this ancient stone was used for abrading.”     

“While the tool is ‘simple’, seemingly, its early appearance and the fact that it has no parallel at such an early stage of human evolution give it global importance,” she said.

The team did still have questions following their deeper study of the abrading stone such as, 

“When did hominins start to erode food and other substances? Where did it happen? And why?”

Shimelmitz stressed that the evolution of these tools and the technology of that time “directly reflects the patterns of change in the abilities of the ancient hominins to shape their environment.” 

“The period 200-400,000 years ago is a period of important technological innovations and significant changes or advancements,” he said. “In human behavior and culture, for example, the use of fire became part of the daily routine, and the use of ‘base sites’ from where they would [live] and go out from for various activities became a way of life.”

“Interestingly,” Shimelmitz said, “this erosion technology does not appear alone but is intertwined with an array of a broader change that to some extent foreshadows the complex behavior familiar to us from the later humanities – the Neanderthals and Homo sapiens.”

For Rosenberg, the large gap between when this ‘technology’ was used and the next time it was discovered to have been used by hominids is still a mystery.

“As mentioned, the following evidence for the tools used for erosion is found only about 150,000 years later,” he said. “Was this ability lost until it was ‘found’ again after so many years? Although we have not been able to tie the item for food processing with certainty, it is highly probable that it was used.” 

Concluding, Rosenberg explained that “the earliest origins of abrading does shed light on how cognitive and motor abilities developed during human evolution, and later evolved into important phenomena in human culture to this day, primarily involving development and abrading in food production techniques, permanent settlement, agriculture, storage and the furthering of social and economic complexity.”

The study was published in the Journal of Human Evolution.

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