The oldest traces of Human Culture in the Rift Valley: The Oldowan

melka oldowan

This is an early “Chopper” or Flake-Core from Melka Kunture, an Ethiopian site, well known for its very Early Paleolithic. The earliest at findings at Melka Kunture come from the Oldowan (at the sites Karre and at level B of Gombore I); with a K/Ar age near to 1,6/1,7 m.y. A probably contemporaneous Oldowan site has been investigated at Garba IV with a radiometrical age between 1-5 and 1,5 m.y. The reevaluation of the Garba IV site by Gallotti showed, that unit D of Garba IV is characterized  by the emergence of a new chaîne opératoire focused on large flake/large cutting tool (LCT) production, and a large variability of small débitage modalities with systematic preparation of the striking platform and the appearance of a certain degree of predetermination , characteristic rather for an early Acheulian than for a Mode I industry-in good agreement with other early Acheulian dates in East Africa.

“Choppers” are stone cores with flakes removed from part of the surface, creating a sharpened edge that was used for cutting, chopping, and scraping. Microscopic surface analysis of the flakes struck from cores has shown that some of these flakes were also used as tools for cutting plants and butchering animals.

The term “Oldowan” is taken from the site of Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, where the first Oldowan lithics were discovered by the archaeologist Louis Leakey in the 1930s.

The earliest traces of hominid cultural behavior begin with several sites in primary context at Gona, in the Hadar region of the Afar triangle in Ethiopia, dating to 2,6 – 2,5 m.y. The Oldowan Industrial Complex is characterized by simple core forms, usually made on cobbles or chunks, the resultant debitage (flakes, broken flakes, and other fragments) struck from these cores, and the battered percussors (spheroids) used to produce the flaking blows.

The pioneering research initiated by Arambourg in 1933 in the Lower Omo Valley (Ethiopia), and continued by the International Omo Research Expedition (IORE) between 1967 and 1976, has produced one of the best-documented bio-environmental and chronostratigraphic Plio-Pleistocene records for the study of human and faunal evolution. Beginning with the 1970ies, very old lithic ensembles were found. Within the Omo Group, all early documented archaeological material comes from the Shungura Formation, and more precisely from Member F deposits, extending from 2.32 Ma to 2.23 Ma.

The materials of the tools were for the most part quartz, quartzite, basalt, or obsidian, and later flint and chert. Experiments have shown that the entire range of Oldowan forms can be produced by hard-hammer percussion, flaking against a stationary anvil, bipolar technique, and, occasionally, throwing one rock against another. Sharp flakes were obtained by various methods, some of which indicate that as early as 2.5 million years hominins had developed knapping skills and manual dexterities that allowed them to organize and predetermine the knapping and produce longer sequences of flaking.

The typological categories commonly applied to Oldowan cores ( “heavy-duty tools,” ) can be viewed as a continuum of lithic reduction with the intent of producing sharp-edge cutting and chopping tools . In this view, many of the cores and so-called “core tools” found in Oldowan assemblages may not have been deliberately shaped into a certain form in order to be used for some purpose; rather their shapes may have emerged as a byproduct of producing sharp cutting flake.

Current evidence shows an abrupt appearance at c. 2.6 m.y of fully competent Mode I tool making at multiple high density sites at Gona accompanied by cut-marked bone at OGS-6,  indicating that Oldowan were used in meat-processing or -acquiring activities, and the nearby Middle Awash site of Bouri. By ca 2.4–2.3 m.y, Oldowan tools appear elsewhere in the Afar as well as further south at Omo and the Turkana. They are present throughout much of East and South Africa by c. 2.0–1.7 m.y (Olduvai Gorge: 1,9-1,7 m.y.).  The best contextualized location for a Olduvan in the Maghreb remains the site of Aïn Hanech, near Sétif in northern Algeria, and the nearby  site of El-Kherba. Both sites exhibit an Oldowan ensemble, dated to at least m.y. If change or stasis characterized the Oldowan is hotly debated. Different species of the genus Homo were the most probable makers of the Oldowan, while there are no convincing positive indications, that Australopithecus was also able for a continuous tool making behavior. An early Homo was recently found in Ledi-Geraru in the Afar triangle and dated to 2.8 m.y

According to the accepted paradigms the distribution of the Oldowan is most consistent with diffusion of Mode I flaking from a single origin in the Afar Rift c. 2.6 m.y, accompanied by the adaptation of specific technological practices (e.g., raw material selection and associated reduction strategies) to local environments and possibly a limited amount of cultural drift. Within this evolution the Mode I industry at Melka Kunture is rather late.

PS April 2015: Even older Mode-I tools including refits of cores and flakes were recently found at Lomekwi in Kenya which were incorporated in sediments about 3.3 million years old. If such claims could be further substantiated, the beginning of tool making would have occurred long before the advent of the genus Homo.  Current paradigms will probably have to be reconsidered..


About Katzman

During my whole life I was fascinated by stone age artefacts. Not only the aesthetic qualities of these findings, but also the stories around them and the considerations arising from their discovery, are a part of my blog. Comments and contributions are allways welcome! About me: J.L. Katzman (Pseudonym). Born in Vienna. Left Austria in 1974 and did not regret. Studied Medicine and Prehistory at a German University. Member of a Medical Department at a German University. Copyright 2010-2017 by JLK. All Rights Reserved. You are welcome to use material in these posts so long as you cite the work.
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3 Responses to The oldest traces of Human Culture in the Rift Valley: The Oldowan

  1. Lutz Fiedler says:

    Are the flakes from Lomekwi a real proof of human behaviour? Remember that the famous american bonobo Kenzi can produce flake tools now. No doubt: The Early Oldowan is a starting point of an imperative tool using culture. But is it possible,that we can say Early Oldowan is that what is possible to happen in nature and therefore a link betwenn culture and nature?

  2. Katzman says:

    Dear Lutz Fiedler,
    In my understanding “culture” comprises socially transmitted skills, knowledge and attitudes. Monkeys can learn skills from each other, in a similar manner as humans- they are not just “natural beings”; therefore I would suggest that the “culture” in Hominids is not very different from “culture” in early Hominins. The border between “culture” of early humans and “culture” of large recent Apes is fluent (you remember the term, I think it was coined by K.J Narr: “Mensch-Tier Übergangsfeld”?). A cooperative study of chaine operatoires of stone tools of Hominids and early Hominins at Lomekwi will probably show the same.

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