Oldest workshop discovered in Ethiopia, dating back 1.2 million years

"These findings highlight a fundamental stage in the development of human intelligence."
Nergis Firtina
Ancient cavemen.
Ancient cavemen.


In Melka Kunture, modern-day Ethiopia, a new study ascertained the oldest workshop in human history, dating back to 1,2 million years ago. As stated by the researchers, this workshop includes the production of obsidian bifaces.

The study also suggests that this finding raises the possibility that our ancestors' production of stone objects may have started more than half a million years earlier than the earliest evidence.

A group of researchers led by Margherita Mussi analyzed the obsidian bifaces and educed that they are highly standardized and thus made by expert hands that produced large chips, retouching them to obtain consistent and repeated shapes despite the fragility of obsidian, a volcanic glass, as per the release.

"The fact that there were no other types of tools at Simbiro, with the exception of these high-quality obsidian tools, leads us to believe that this was a specialized production site," says Mussi, excavation director since 2011. "In other words, this is a production workshop, the oldest ever known, since those known so far date back no more than 300,000 years".

Oldest workshop discovered in Ethiopia, dating back 1.2 million years
The Sapienza-funded archaeological mission has revealed the presence of the oldest known area of specialised tool production.

Hominids noticed large obsidian pebbles

The spatiotemporal characteristics of the early stages of evolution were assessed to conduct the study. Researchers accurately rebuild a flat, tree-rich landscape with a seasonal overflowing and changing course watercourse, depositing and degrading different deposits.

Hominids discovered one of these, a collection of substantial obsidian pebbles, and they used it numerous times to create obsidian bifaces. The data for the Lower Pleistocene generally points to a weakly differentiated settlement where all daily activities, including manufacturing artifacts and their use for various purposes, took place at Simbiro.

"These findings highlight a fundamental stage in the development of human intelligence: innovation, which is linked to creativity," said Margherita Mussi. "It is the first example of the development of 'parallel thinking,' which means bringing together knowledge and technical skills previously acquired in other productions."

The study was published in Nature Ecology&Evolution on January 19.

Study abstract:

Pleistocene archaeology records the changing behaviour and capacities of early hominins. These behavioural changes, for example, to stone tools, are commonly linked to environmental constraints. It has been argued that, in earlier times, multiple activities of everyday life were all uniformly conducted at the same spot. The separation of focused activities across different localities, which indicates a degree of planning, according to this mindset characterizes later hominins since only 500,000 years ago. Simbiro III level C, in the upper Awash valley of Ethiopia, allows us to test this assumption in its assemblage of stone tools made only with obsidian, dated to more than 1.2 million years (Myr) old. Here we first reconstruct t he p al ae oenvironment, showing that the landscape was seasonally flooded. Following the deposition of an accumulation of obsidian cobbles by a meandering river, hominins began to exploit these in new ways, producing large tools with sharp cutting edges. We show through statistical analysis that this was a focused activity, that very standardized handaxes were produced and that this was a stone-tool workshop. We argue that at Simbiro III, hominins were doing much more than simply reacting to environmental changes; they were taking advantage of new opportunities, and developing new techniques and new skills according to them.

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