4. The Lower Paleolithic

The Lower Paleolithic marks that place on the geological timeline when the genus Homo is thought to have emerged 2.4 million years ago with an individual named Homo habilis. Although H. habilis was probably little more than a scavenger he effectively managed the Olduwan tools handed down to him by his great ape relatives. And as a scavenger, H. habilis likely organized group efforts in the interest of surviving much like his primate relatives had for millions of years before him. About 1.8 million years ago Homo erectus joined in the quest for survival. He initiated the development of a hunter gatherer society not dissimilar from those that still exist today. Homo erectus had numerous traditions of tools at his disposal. He undoubtedly continued the use of Olduwan technology but also employed Acheulean hand axes and Clactonian flaking and knapping. Homo erectus apparently cultivated a sense of vision as well; he migrated out of Africa. Numerous individuals emerged about 600,000 years ago: Homo heidelbergensis, Homo neanderthalensis, and eventually archaic Homo sapiens. It is thought that possible symbolic language, control of fire, and burial of relatives emerged with them although many place the use of fire much, much earlier. Another 300,000 years passed before the complexity of society and behavior became evident. These people were full-fledged hunter gatherers that practiced sophisticated burials, and had developed prepared core techniques in stone tools. Our species, Homo sapiens sapiens emerged in Africa a mere 200,000 years ago. Although the picture is anything but complete it is apparent that the 85 million year journey was long and hard. In this essay I would like to take a closer look at the tool industries of the Lower Paleolithic and meet the individuals responsible for their advancement.

Olduwan tools, often referred to as pebble tools showed up 2.6 million years ago and persisted for at least a million years beyond that. The earliest tools appear to be nothing more than cobbles found along the trail that were split and fashioned into choppers, scrapers, and pounders. Spherical river stones were simply struck with a hammer stone to produce a conchoidal fracture and a sharp edge. The removed chip is called a flake. It is difficult to determine the tool from the waste and it is likely both had uses. Stone choices for tools include quartz, quartzite, basalt, obsidian, flint, and chert. They were used to harvest nuts and bones, to scrape plants, and prepare hides for shelters, clothes, and containers. Pointed bones and sticks were used to dig roots and tubers, and wooden branches were probably used as missiles and clubs. Green branches were woven into shelters and sleeping nests. Olduwan tools are not genus Homo’s invention; Australopithecus and Paranthropus used them too. Excavated sites dated at about 1.5 million years indicate increased social groups and home bases with the presence of large numbers of bones found at these sites. Genus Homo has also attained some control over fire. Blackened artifacts, baked clay, and fire-blackened bones have been found too. It is likely that early Homo hunted only small game and scavenged the remains of prey taken by predators. He might have driven off the predators but the large incidence of extremity bones found at the home base camps suggests that predators took the best meat before abandoning the remains to which we helped ourselves.

Acheulean tools make their appearance about 1.5 million years ago too with Homo erectus and Homo ergaster and lasted about one million years. It appears as though the toolmakers began with Olduwan tools and then went on to rework them into distinct and symmetrical oval and pear-shaped axes, cleavers, retouched flakes, scrapers, and chopping tools. It is the first time the core stone rather than the flake became appreciated as valuable. The tools are thought to have been worked close to the source of the stone, suggesting that techniques were handed down and shared with the group. The stone was roughed out with a hammer stone then thinned and modified by using a softer hammer such as bone or antler. Most of the tools found appear to be multi-use tools capable of cutting trees, butchering carcasses, and scraping and cutting hides. It is possible in terms weaponry that the tools were hurled at the hunter’s prey. Large deposits of unused axes have been found. It is speculated that they carried social significance as well such as impressing a prospective mate or used as offerings in some unknown ritual. The symmetry of hand axes indicates a pronounced use of language simply because fine the fine motor skills required are logged in the same part of the brain that controls speech. The wide variety of tools and the improved aesthetics of them suggest a far greater intelligence emerging. Evidence of other artifacts remains limited but rare finds show that H. ergaster built shelters and exploited fire; both essential to surviving the cold of Europe.

The birth of the Clactonian industry about 400,000 years ago is a huge step taken by Homo erectus. We see efficient use of both cores and flakes, many of which are notched to attach a shaft or handle. Although the stones don’t appear to be reworked the invention of hafting is significant. There is some controversy about the industries of Acheulean and Clactonian coexisting. The difference in the tools could simply be governed by location and need, and not separate industries at all. There was probably only limited contact between bands to share technology and the local technology of a specific area might well have been dictated by what that area provided. So let’s take a closer look at the cast of characters discovered to date.

The remains of Homo gauntengensis have been dated to 1.8 to .6 million years ago and many think he could be much older. Homo gauntengensis had a small brain and big teeth suitable for tough plant fibers and was probably an ecological specialist. Although he had stone tools and some use of fire, he was a bipedal that spent a great deal of time in trees for safety as well as eating and sleeping; he coexisted with Australopithecus. Homo gauntengensis had not evolved the necessary features in his anatomy for speech or language. Although Homo gauntengensis is a close relative he is not likely to be a direct ancestor to Homo sapiens. It should be mentioned that bones of even earlier proto-humans have been found but have yet to be studied.

Homo habilis walked the Earth somewhere around 1.4 million years ago and possibly much earlier. He bore little resemblance to humans with his Australpine body of a short stature with very long arms, and yet he had a far more human face and teeth. The brain of Homo habilis deserves some real scrutiny. While only half the size of ours, his brain was twice the size of Australopithecus. And he is almost always found with a stash of tools. Although Homo habilis had mastered the Olduwan tool technology he failed to become a master hunter even with greater intelligence and a more complex social structure than seen with chimpanzees and Australopithecus. His tools were strictly those of a scavenger. Homo habilis lived side by side with other proto humans such as Paranthropus but had developed a far more sophisticated use of tools. He might have coexisted with Homo erectus for a half million years as well. Both are thought to be possible descendants of an unknown common ancestor. Others believe Homo ergaster and Homo erectus descended from Homo habilis. It’s a mystery that might well never be solved.

Not much is known about Homo rudolfensis. He seems to have coexisted with Homo habilis about 1.9 million years ago but his head is distinctly different. It isn’t known if Homo rudolfensis is an ancestor of later species or that other species and he share an unknown common ancestor. Findings remain inconclusive.

Homo ergaster is thought to have diverged from Homo habilis about 1.8 million years ago followed by Homo erectus immediately thereafter. He is considered the direct ancestor of Homo heidelbergensis, Homo sapiens, Homo neanderthalensis, and the Asian model of Homo erectus. Homo ergaster is one of the earliest members of genus Homo, either ancestral to or sharing an unknown common ancestor with Homo erectus. Homo ergaster is believed to have introduced the Acheulean tool industry about 1.6 million years ago. He coexisted with Homo habilis for 2 or 3 hundred thousand years suggesting that both might have diverged from an unknown common ancestor. Evidence also suggests that he was the first to hunt in genuinely coordinated groups, use highly complex tools, and care for his infirm and weak group members. Genetic testing suggests that Homo ergaster was the ancestor to all later hominids.  Homo ergaster’s arrival brought greatly reduced sexual dimorphism with much larger females and less male to male conflict. Reduced competition and dimorphism coincides with bigger brains and more effective tools. He resembled contemporary hunter gatherers in that he didn’t compete for females. Homo ergaster’s body was far more human in appearance, and he advanced social and organizational skills exponentially. But his greatest claim to fame was fire; he was the first to use it. There is no evidence that indicates that Homo ergaster made fire but it is quite clear that he effectively controlled and contained natural fire. Although physically limited, H. ergaster’s anatomy clearly indicates an ability to use his voice and make complex sounds.

Homo erectus showed up about 1.8 million years ago and disappeared only 300,000 years ago. That is an impressive reign. Some believe that Homo ergaster is simply a variety of Homo erectus. His ancestry is up for grabs too, believed by some to be descended from Ardipithecus or Australopithecus while others think more along the lines of having descended from Homo ergaster or Homo habilis. Then there are those who are convinced that H. habilis and H. erectus coexisted and shared a common unknown ancestor.  That being said, Homo erectus had a very large brain, refined teeth, less frontal protrusion and slope, and drastically reduced sexual dimorphism. He made greater advances in tool design and function, invented the first raft, controlled fire more than a million years ago and most likely knew how to make fire. That has huge implications. Homo erectus was the first full-fledged hunter gatherer who had a complex and recognizable social structure.

Homo cepranensis made a brief appearance 500,000 years ago and disappeared 350,000 years ago. He didn’t leave us much to go on beyond the possibility that he was an intermediate between Homo erectus and Homo heidelbergensis who dominated Europe before Neanderthal.

The last character in this short parade of ancient ones is Homo antecessor. It is not known if he was an evolutionary link between Homo ergaster and Homo heidelbergensis, or a separate species evolved from Homo ergaster. It is known that Homo antecessor had a brain about 75% the size of ours, and his tool design suggested definite right-handedness.  Homo antecessor had an auditory frequency range similar to that of Homo sapiens, was capable of symbolic language, had our teeth, and was quite able to reason. His tools include a knife, stone flakes, and instruments for animal bone processing. A 700,000 year old find in Suffolk, England reveals evidence for a possible cross between H. antecessor and H. heidelbergensis. In Happisburgh, Norfolk, England a stash of Homo antecessor tools was found to be a stunning 950,000 years old making the find a benchmark of the oldest Homo population in northern Europe.

In conclusion I need to mention that dates are a bit wonky and at times confounding. Very little is set in stone, so to speak, of the mysteries of the Lower Paleolithic or the string of evolutionary stages that preceded it. And we can see often heated disagreements between scientists as to the meanings of the finds. But one thing science does agree on, the picture is anything but complete. New discoveries are made every year, and often every month that change the entire image of our past and no one knows with any certainty if that picture will ever be complete. But no matter how brief my excursion into the distant past might be it provides a view of our long journey filled with failures and accomplishments all of which hinged on the availability of food and our ability to secure it in an ever-changing and perilous environment.




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