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Early humans used prehistoric tool to chop bones, eat the marrow: Israeli study

Tel Aviv University researchers solve mystery of sharp-edged devices, found in many areas and known to have been in use for over 2 million years

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Flint chopping tools from the Revadim prehistoric site, east of Ashdod. (Courtesy Prof. Ran Barkai/Tel Aviv University)
Flint chopping tools from the Revadim prehistoric site, east of Ashdod. (Courtesy Prof. Ran Barkai/Tel Aviv University)

Tel Aviv University researchers have discovered what use early humans made of a widely distributed but mysterious flint chopping tool, the university said in a statement Wednesday.

The tools, flint pebbles with one flaked, sharp and massive edge, were used to carefully split open animal bones to get to the nutritious bone marrow inside it, researchers said.

Stone chopping tools have been found in plentiful amounts at prehistoric sites ranging across Africa, Europe, the Middle East and China. They are known to have been in use for over two million years, but just what prehistoric humans were doing with them was, until now, unclear.

Researchers examined dozens of the tools found at the Revadim prehistoric site in Israel and the results of the work were published in the January 2021 edition of the peer-reviewed PLOS One Journal.

The study was conducted by Prof. Ran Barkai and Dr. Aviad Agam of the Sonia and Marco Nadler Institute of Archaeology at Tel Aviv University, along with Dr. Flavia Venditti of the University of Tübingen and in collaboration with researchers from Sapienza University of Rome.

The findings “add to our knowledge of the production and use of these enigmatic tools and their role in human evolutionary history,” researchers wrote in the paper.

Flint chopping tools were invented in Africa about 2.6 million years ago, and then moved across the globe as humans migrated, explained researcher Barkai in the statement from the university.

Prof. Ran Barkai of Tel Aviv University. (Tel Aviv University)

“Until now, they had never been subjected to methodical lab testing to find out what they were actually used for,” Barkai said.

Researchers examined tools that were found at the Revadim site, east of Ashdod, which dates back some 300,000-500,000 years.

They scrutinized traces of wear and tear on 53 tools as well as organic residue found on some of the items.

Researchers came to the conclusion that the tools were used by humans living at the site to break open bones of medium-sized animals such as cattle, fallow deer and gazelles in order to get to the bone marrow.

“The bones must be broken neatly in two, which requires great skill and precision. Shattering the bone into pieces would damage the precious bone marrow,” Barkai said. “The chopping tool, which we examined in this study, was evidently outstandingly popular, because it was easy to make and highly effective for this purpose. This is apparently the reason for its enormous distribution over such a long period of time.”

Barkai said the Revadim site is “rich with remarkably well-preserved findings.”

“Over the years we have discovered that Revadim was a highly favored site, re-inhabited over and over again by humans, most probably of the late Homo Erectus species. Bones of many types of game, including elephants, cattle, deer, gazelles and others, were found at the site,” he said.

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