Ancient humans recycled flint from old axes to make tiny 'butcher's knives' to cut animal skin and scrape meat off bones, study reveals

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  • Researchers studied 283 tiny flint flakes from an archaeological site in Israel
  • They found the flakes were not waste made by producing larger, cruder axes 
  • Instead the tiny tools were made deliberately for finely butchering animals
  • Such implements were likely for severing tendons and taking flesh off of bones 
  • This suggests that early Stone Age tech was more advanced than thought

Ancient humans living in the early Stone Age made tiny flint tools ¿ az pictured, by recycling old hand axes, allowing them to butcher animals with surgical precision.

Ancient humans living in the early Stone Age made tiny flint tools by recycling old hand axes, allowing them to butcher animals with surgical precision 

The flint flakes ¿ found at an archaeological site in southern Israel ¿ would have been used to process animals by severing tendons and stripping flesh from bone

The flint flakes — found at an archaeological site in southern Israel — would have been used to process animals by severing tendons and stripping flesh from bone

The researchers had analysed hundreds of the tiny stone tools to determine how they were used and even found residues of flesh and bone on some. Pictured, the archaeological site of Revadim, in southern Israel, from where the flint flakes were found

The researchers had analysed hundreds of the tiny stone tools to determine how they were used and even found residues of flesh and bone on some. Pictured, the archaeological site of Revadim, in southern Israel, from where the flint flakes were found

The researchers conducted experiments with reproductions of some of the stone flakes to assess the kind of tasks they were most suitable for. The tiny flakes may have been used for such precise tasks as carving meat, separating tendons and removing flesh from bone

The researchers conducted experiments with reproductions of some of the stone flakes to assess the kind of tasks they were most suitable for. The tiny flakes may have been used for such precise tasks as carving meat, separating tendons and removing flesh from bone

The findings suggest that early Stone Age technology was far more advanced than previously thought and used carefully by a people who wasted little of their kill

The findings suggest that early Stone Age technology was far more advanced than previously thought and used carefully by a people who wasted little of their kill

Archaeologist Ran Barkai of the Tel Aviv University and colleagues analysed 283 flints unearthed at the archaeological site of Revadim, in southern Israel

Archaeologist Ran Barkai of the Tel Aviv University and colleagues analysed 283 flints unearthed at the archaeological site of Revadim, in southern Israel

The stone age is a period in human prehistory distinguished by the original development of stone tools that covers more than 95 per cent of human technological prehistory. This image shows neolithic jadeitite axes from the Museum of Toulouse

The stone age is a period in human prehistory distinguished by the original development of stone tools that covers more than 95 per cent of human technological prehistory. This image shows neolithic jadeitite axes from the Museum of Toulouse

Ancient humans living in the early Stone Age made tiny flint tools by recycling old hand axes, allowing them to butcher animals with surgical precision.

The flint flakes — found at an archaeological site in southern Israel — would have been used to process animals by severing tendons and stripping flesh from bone.

The researchers had analysed hundreds of the tiny stone tools to determine how they were used and even found residues of flesh and bone on some.

The findings suggest that early Stone Age technology was far more advanced than previously thought and used carefully by a people who wasted little of their kill.

And, although the tools can’t be considered early examples of cutlery because people didn’t eat with them, they would have allowed food to be prepared with exactitude.

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Archaeologist Ran Barkai of the Tel Aviv University and colleagues analysed 283 flints unearthed at the archaeological site of Revadim, in southern Israel.

The site is known for its stone tools — including dozens of hand axes — and animal remains, which were predominantly straight-tusked elephants.

Each of the flints date back to the so-called Lower Palaeolithic, or Early Stone Age, around 300,000–500,000 years ago.

The belong to a type of stone tool industry known as the Late Acheulian, which is characterised by large oval and pear-shaped hand axes, commonly associated with Homo erectus and its derived species, including Homo heidelbergensis.

Experts believe that these large tools were used to butcher large animals across Africa, Europe and Asia for more than a million years — although some researchers have argued that the relatively crude hand tools were the peak of Acheulian tech.

In the past, the Revadim site has yielded various animal remains, primarily of elephants, and stone assemblages, including dozens of hand axes.

The researchers, however, were occupied with much smaller tools — tiny flakes of flint no more than a couple of centimetres in size. 

‘For decades, archaeologists did not pay attention to these tiny flakes. Emphasis was instead focused on large, elaborate hand axes and other impressive stone tools,’ said Professor Barkai.

‘But we now have solid evidence proving the vital use of the two-inch flakes.’

‘The analysis included microscopic observations of use-wear as well as organic and inorganic residues,’ said paper author and archaeologist Flavia Venditti.

‘We were looking for signs of edge damage, striations, polishes, and organic residue trapped in depressions in the tiny flint flakes.’

These features, Dr Venditti explained, allowed the researchers to determine how the little flint flakes were once used — with their analysis suggesting that the flakes were not merely waste produced during the knapping of larger stone tools.

Instead, they themselves were manufactured as a deliberate product, recycled out of discarded larger tools and intended for a very specific use — as implements for use in the finer stages of butchery.

Of the flakes, 107 showed signs of having been used to process animal carcasses, with 11 revealing residues of tissues and bones.

‘Ancient humans depended on the meat and especially the fat of animals for their existence and well-being, said Professor Barkai.

‘So the quality butchery of the large animals and the extraction of every possible calorie was of paramount importance to them.’

The researchers conducted experiments with reproductions of some of the stone flakes to assess the kind of tasks they were most suitable for.

The tiny flakes may have been used for such precise tasks as carving meat, separating tendons and removing the membranes that cover bones in order to get at the marrow inside.

‘We show here for the first time that the tiny tools were deliberately manufactured from recycled material and played an important role in the ancient human toolbox and survival strategies,’ said Dr. Venditti. 

The findings suggest that Acheulian toolkit was much more advanced that previously thought.

‘We have an image of ancient humans as bulky, large creatures who attacked elephants with large stone weapons. They then gobbled as much of these elephants as they could and went to sleep,’ said Professor Barkai. 

‘In fact, they were much more sophisticated than that. The tiny flakes acted as surgical tools created and used for delicate cutting of exact parts of elephants’ as well as other animals’ carcasses to extract every possible calorie.’

‘Nothing was wasted. Discarded stone tools were recycled to produce new tiny cutting implements. This reflects a refined, accurate, thoughtful, and environmentally conscious culture.’

‘This ecological awareness allowed ancient humans to thrive for thousands of years.’

The full findings of the study were published in the journal Scientific Reports. 

The stone age is a period in human prehistory distinguished by the original development of stone tools that covers more than 95 per cent of human technological prehistory.

It begins with the earliest known use of stone tools by hominins, ancient ancestors to humans, during the Old Stone Age – beginning around 3.3 million years ago.

Between roughly 400,000 and 200,000 years ago, the pace of innovation in stone technology began to accelerate very slightly, a period known as the Middle Stone Age.

By the beginning of this time, handaxes were made with exquisite craftsmanship. This eventually gave way to smaller, more diverse toolkits, with an emphasis on flake tools rather than larger core tools.

These toolkits were established by at least 285,000 years in some parts of Africa, and by 250,000 to 200,000 years in Europe and parts of western Asia. These toolkits last until at least 50,000 to 28,000 years ago.

During the Later Stone Age the pace of innovations rose and the level of craftsmanship increased.

Groups of Homo sapiens experimented with diverse raw materials, including bone, ivory, and antler, as well as stone.

The period, between 50,000 and 39,000 years ago, is also associated with the advent of modern human behaviour in Africa.

Different groups sought their own distinct cultural identity and adopted their own ways of making things.

Later Stone Age peoples and their technologies spread out of Africa over the next several thousand years.



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