Oldest Stone Tools and Intelligence

Glenn Morton (grmorton@psyberlink.net)
Sun, 02 Mar 1997 17:30:45 -0600

The recent announcement of the oldest stone tools found at Gona,
Ethiopia in strata dated between 2.5 to 2.6 MYR, have raised some
very interesting issues concerning the intelligence of these
beings. Apparently their knowledge of the mechanics of stone
knapping was quite good.

Semaw et al. write:

"There are numerous examples of several generations of flake
scars on the cores, indicating that Late Pliocene hominids had
mastered the skills of basic stone knapping. Moreover, the large
number of well struck flakes with conspicuous bulbs of percussion
indicate a clear understanding of conchoidal fracture mechanics.
'Detached pieces' are numerically dominant, with values in the
range of 75-95%. There are a few 'pounded pieces', namely pieces
modified or shaped by pounding or battering, like hammerstones,
anvils or battered cobbles."~S. Semaw, et al, "2.5-Million-year-
old stone Tools from Gona Ethiopia," Nature, 385(January 23,
1997), p. 333-336, p. 335

This is important because during attempts this decade to teach a
chimpanzee to make stone tools, the chimp never learned rock
mechanics and fracturing.

"Their subject, Kanzi, a star in communication experiments,
showed an immediate interest in having sharp flakes available to
cut cords that held a fruit-containing box closed. He got the
idea of striking flakes from a core, but even after many months
of training he was still nowhere near the skill level of the
Oldowan toolmakers. The latter clearly understood the major
properties of the stones they worked and selected the most
effective points at which to strike an inevitably irregular core.
NOt so Kanzi, who never mastered the idea of striking stone at
the optimum angle. His best products are rather like the
'eoliths' that so confused early archaeologists: rocks randomly
banged together and flaked as they rolled along riverbeds. Toth
and colleagues concluded from this that the early hominid
toolmakers ahd a much better cognitive understanding of what
toolmaking is all about than any modern ape is able to
acquire."~Ian Tattersall, The Fossil Trail (New York: Oxford
University Press, 1995), p.207

The teachers of Kanzi relate:

"The first day we started by showing him that stone tools
are pretty useful things: a stone flake could be used to cut a
cord and open a box containing a treat (of Kanzi's choice--a
bunch of grapes, a piece of watermelon, a cold juice drink, and
so forth). By the end of the first day, Kanzi was using flakes
that we had made and cutting readily into box after box,
developing a true appreciation for stone tools. At the end of
the second day he had become an excellent judge of stone knives:
given a choice of five different pieces of stone to cut into his
box, he could choose the sharpest one nine times out of ten. He
was also maiking casual attempst to hit rocks togetrher to make a
tool on his own."~Kathy D. Schick and Nicholas Toth, Making
Silent Stones Speak, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993), p. 136

"Although Kanzi is still continuing to improve his tool-
making abilities, his present level of expertise is significantly
below that seen in the Oldowan hominids. His core forms are
strikingly similar to the natural eoliths produced by geological
forces, which confused prehistorians around the turn of the
century. He still doesn't show the understanding of flaking
angles that Oldowan hominids had: Kanzi bashes and cruches the
edges of cores with his hammer stone rather than using highly
controlled and forceful blows that we can see in the early Stone
Age artifacts. Recently throwing has become his favorite
technique."~Kathy D. Schick and Nicholas Toth, Making Silent
Stones Speak, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993), p. 139

"Moreover, Kanzi's progress so far as a tool maker suggests to us
that early Oldowan hominids may exhibit a much greater cognitive
understanding of the prinicples and mechanics of tool making than
modern apes seem to be able to develop. This indicates something
important about our hard-wiring, the size and compelxity of our
brain and its connections to the motor control system, at this
stage in our evolution. We feel that these hominids probably had
surpassed modern apes and probably their australopithecine
ancestors in their ability to modify stones."~Kathy D. Schick and
Nicholas Toth, Making Silent Stones Speak, (New York: Simon and
Schuster, 1993), p. 139

Compare this with the fact that the Gona hominids selected their
raw material, Semaw et al note,

"Trachyte was the main raw material source, comprising >70%
of the artefacts. Other volcanics such as rhyolite and basalt
were also used. The likely sources of raw materials were nearby
stream conglomerates. Clasts from the level if the Intermediate
Conglomerate show that trachyte cobbles were the most abundant,
comprising about 50% of the total sample that also includes
chalcedony, breccia and other lavas. The high proportion of
trachyte artefacts could be taken to mean an appreciation of the
flaking properties and selectivity for this particular raw
material over others."~S. Semaw, et al, "2.5-Million-year-old
stone Tools from Gona Ethiopia," Nature, 385(January 23, 1997),
p. 333-336, p. 335

"The sophisticated understanding of conchoidal fracture
evidence at Gona implies that the hominids that lived about 2.5
Myr ago were not novices to lithic technology. We predict that
even older artefacts will be found."~S. Semaw, et al, "2.5-
Million-year-old stone Tools from Gona Ethiopia," Nature,
385(January 23, 1997), p. 333-336, p. 336

All of the above, combined with the other new discoveries, that
Homo erectus was a hunter, not a scavenger and that some hominid
lived in Siberia, 300,000 years ago, has shown that ancient man
was far more intelligent and resourceful than was previously believed. Of
Christian apologetical view, mine is the only one which can
easily incorporate such discoveries.


Foundation, Fall and Flood