Dainty 500,000-year-old blades show man used finesse to chow down on elephants
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ArchaeologyReflects a refined and environmentally conscious culture

Dainty 500,000-year-old blades show man used finesse to chow down on elephants

Tel Aviv University team shows early man intentionally upcycled flint byproducts of stone knapping to efficiently butcher elephants and suck the marrow out of life

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

Tiny 500,000-year-old flake from Revadim site: reconstruction of hand-grip during use. (Dr. Flavia Venditti and Prof. Ran Barkai/Tel Aviv University)
Tiny 500,000-year-old flake from Revadim site: reconstruction of hand-grip during use. (Dr. Flavia Venditti and Prof. Ran Barkai/Tel Aviv University)

Some 500,000 years ago at a settlement near southern Israel’s Kibbutz Revadim, early man did not clean his knives — much to modern man’s edification. A new study out of Tel Aviv University has discerned elephant fat on an array of utensils — most notably on slight 5-cm (2 inch) scalpel-like flint blades that were previous thought by scholars to be mere byproducts in the knapping of larger stone tools.

It turns out, according to a new study published this week in Nature’s Scientific Reports peer-reviewed journal, that early man upcycled these byproduct flint pieces and used them to butcher their large prey more exactly.

The article, “Animal residues found on tiny Lower Paleolithic tools reveal their use in butchery,” is the fruit of a three-year study conducted by an international team of researchers led by Dr. Flavia Venditti and Prof. Ran Barkai of TAU’s Department of Archeology and Ancient Near Eastern Cultures, who were joined by scientists from La Sapienza Rome University.

Tel Aviv University postdoctoral fellow Dr. Flavia Venditti (courtesy)

The examined tiny flint flakes were discovered during the 2011 excavation of a Lower Paleolithic Late Acheulian site at Revadim. The prehistoric settlement has offered up a vast collection of larger stone tools, including dozens of hand axes and scrapers, and a plethora of animal bones. The innovation of the current study is the inclusion of 283 precision tools that once were held in the hands of previously stigmatized clumsy cavemen 300,000-500,000 years ago.

Tiny 500,000-year-old flake from Revadim site: Bone residue entrapped in a flake used to strip meat from the bone. (Dr. Flavia Venditti and Prof. Ran Barkai/Tel Aviv University)

“For decades, archaeologists did not pay attention to these tiny flakes. Emphasis was instead focused on on large, elaborate hand axes and other impressive stone tools,” said Barkai in a press release. “But we now have solid evidence proving the vital use of the two-inch flakes.”

According to the press release, “the tiny tools were used at stages of the butchery process that required precise cutting, such as tendon separation, meat carving, and periosteum removal for marrow acquisition.” Since early man depended upon every morsel he could consume, these precious precision tools would make butchering that much more efficient.

“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,” said Barkai.

Tel Aviv University Prof. Ran Barkai (courtesy)

In addition to scrutiny under the microscope, experiments were carried out with reproductions of the tools. The trials showed that in tandem with more-known stone axes and scrapers, “small flakes must have been used for delicate tasks.”

Study head Venditti said the research analysis included microscopic observations of use-wear, as well as organic and inorganic residues. Of the 283 flakes studied, 107 showed signs of processing animal carcasses.

“We were looking for signs of edge damage, striations, polishes, and organic residue trapped in depressions in the tiny flint flakes, all to understand what the flakes were used for,” said Venditti.

In the team’s article, they claim to show that the flakes are “part of a varied and pre-planned tool-kit produced for specific stages of the animal butchery process. As such, these tools are part of a set of early human adaptations that included other cognitively complex behaviors such as the use of fire and big-game hunting.”

An elephant rib found in Revadim, Israel. (Photo credit: Ran Barkai)

Previously published finds from the Revadim site include larger tools used for elephant butchery alongside a purposefully cut rib bone. The discovery of larger tools as well as these small flint chips allowed for a comparison of the fat residues on both. “The late Lower Paleolithic Acheulian site of Revadim provides an unprecedented opportunity to explore for the first time the production and use of small flake tool-kits produced by means of lithic recycling,” states the article.

Barkai claimed that nothing was wasted by early man.

“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,” he stated.

Experimental archaeology: Skin cutting using a replica of the 500,000-year-old Revadim tiny flake. (Dr. Flavia Venditti and Prof. Ran Barkai)

Among other goals, the researchers hope the new study will allow for a revised opinion of our far-off ancestors.

“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 Barkai. “In fact, they were much more sophisticated than that.”

500,000-year-old bone fibers entrapped in the working edge of a tiny flake from Revadim. (Dr. Flavia Venditti and Prof. Ran Barkai/Tel Aviv University)
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