The Oldest Human Bones, Jebel Irhoud, Morocco

You’ve heard to story. I’m here to give you a little context.

A pretty typical early handaxe, made by a Homo erectus. This was a big flake made from a bigger rock. The big flake was subsequently flaked to make this handaxe. The word “handaxe” can be spelled about nine different ways.
But in case you haven’t heard the story, this is from the press release which is, so far, the only information generally available:

New finds of fossils and stone tools from the archaeological site of Jebel Irhoud, Morocco, push back the origins of our species by one hundred thousand years and show that by about 300 thousand years ago important changes in our biology and behaviour had taken place across most of Africa.

In order to understand the significance of this research, and it is indeed very significant, you need to have a detailed history of archaeological research in Europe, the Near East, and Africa. But since there isn’t time for that I’ll give you the following bullet points. Each of these bullet points reflects the general understanding of prehistory at a certain point in time, in order from oldest to newest.

This shows the Victoria West technique, used during the Fauersmith though this particular rock may be later). See the extra small flaking along one part of the rock? That was done to prepare the platform for the controlled detachment of a flake.

In the 70s and before, we thought this:

As humans evolved they went through stages where the morphology would change, usually involving an enlargement of the brain, along with the behavior, usually indicated by changes in stone tools. So, Homo erectus used acheulean tools (hand axes), Neanderthals used Mousterian tools (Levallois technology) with prepared platforms, and modern humans (“Cro Magnon”) used upper paleolithic technology and they had nice art too. The transition from Neanderthal times to Modern Human times happened 40,000 years ago.

The levallois technique. this involved shaping a rock to look like a turtle. Then, you shape one end of the turtle to look like the old fashioned hat of a French policeman. Then you hit the policeman on the hat just right, and a perfect flake comes off. In Africa, this was usually used to make blades and triangular points, but sometimes ovals.
In the 80s we realized that there was no association whatsoever between the various “industries” and the various “hominids” mainly because a lot of research in the Middle East kept finding Neanderthals and Modern Humans randomly associated with various technologies. This caused a disturbance in the force, so the whole idea of linking morphology (i.e, different species or subspecies) with different levels or modes of technological activity was tossed out the window.

Also in the 1980s and continuing into the early 1990s, African archaeologists realized something. Well, they realized two things. Most of us realized that at a certain point of time, which Sally McBreardy and Allison Brooks estimated to be about 250,000 years ago or a bit earlier, a “middle paleolithic” world with a lot of handaxes and some other bifaces (Sangoan-Lupemban technologies, that sort of thing) gave way to a “Middle Stone Age” technology. This MSA technology was essentially the same as but somewhat more advanced than what the Europeans called “Middle Plaeolithic” based on the Levallois technique, a prepared platform technology.

Eventually, very advanced technologies and very advanced modes of thinking, such as exemplified by this possible calendar object from the Semliki Valley in the Congo, emerged.
Notice that I keep mentioning that term … prepared platform technology. Put a pin in that.

The second thing we all knew about but not every body liked was an idea by Peter Beaumont, which is that a certain technology had emerged earlier than the Acheulean-MSA transition of 250K, which was called Fauersmith. This was a … wait for it … prepared platform technology of sorts.

Classically, the handaxe based technology of the early stone age was replaced with the prepared platform technology. This meant throwing the handaxes one last time and moving on to blades and points made with the levallois technique. But in the Fauersmith, an industry found mainly in the Cape Province of South Africa and nearby areas (I think I’ve seen it in Namibia), uses … wait for it … prepared platform technology to make handaxes! This industry is thought to be just older than the MSA, so just older than 250K, going back maybe to 350K, or maybe 400K or even 500K, no one is sure.

The Africanists also realized that the Europeans were pretty messed up in their thinking. The species/subspecies link to technology never went away in Africa. While such a thing is never expected to be perfect, it seemed to hold there. The reason the Europeans were confused is this: When it comes to new species and new technologies, Africa is the donor and Eurasia the occasional recipient.

I liken it to figuring out the chronology and technology of trade beads, those little glass beads, still in use, that were carried by Dutch and English (and other) ships around the world mainly in the early 17th century, to trade with the locals and buy things like, say, Manhattan Island. If you look at the trade beads found here and there on colonial sites around the world, and I’ve personally done this, you can figure out a chronology of style and design of those beads that we assume reflects realty in the two or three places they were consistently made. But only by going to the factory neighborhoods in the Netherlands and Italy, and South Asia, can you actually figure out what was going on.

Putting it another way, trying to describe human evolution, substantively, by observing only Europe and West Asia and ignoring Africa is like, oh hell, I don’t know what the heck, why would you ever do that?

Anyway, here’s what many of us have been thinking all along, following the insights of folks like Peter Beaumont and Alison Brooks. Once upon a time there were these Homo erectus doods, and they have some moderate game in the brain department but were definitely not humans. They may have lacked some serious human mind tricks, though they were capable of making and using fire, and their handaxes were very nice, when they wanted them to be. They were also very tough and strong and probably somewhat dangerous. Oddly, the most common cause of death, when we can estimate cause of death, is that they ate something that killed them. So, there is some kind of deficit or something behind that.

Then, some time after about a half million years ago, a subset of these guys, and I know where they lived because I have sat on the exact rock chairs they themselves sat on while making their tools, added something to their hand ax technology. They had probably added other things to their culture, and/or their brains, and this hand ax technology thing merely reflected this, but it also opened the opportunity for developing this technology further, and that may have been actually contributory to the subsequent evolutionary process. Anyway, they added this thing where instead of just whacking a flake off a big rock, with the intention of then flaking that big flake into a handaxe, they would make a few smaller specially and carefully done flakes on the big rock, literally a giant piece of bedrock in some cases, that made the prot-handaxe flake they were about to produce more predictable (and, actually, larger in many cases, I think).

The prepared platform. It made making hand axes better. But, taken to the next step, which seems to have happened in this region probably before the Great Transition in 250K, it actually allowed the production of stone tool doohickies never before seen, never before possible. this eventually developed into the full on prepared platform technique that eventually became common all across Africa, Europe and West Asia.

Now, let me tell you a little story you won’t hear, likely, from somewhere else. I was once visiting my friend Peter Beaumont, and he showed me a skull, that was unfortunately unprovenienced, i.e., no one could be sure of where it came from, that looks a lot like the Jebe Irhoud skull and others of that general form and age range. He did have it dated using a technique that, without knowing more about the context of the skull (it has been collected in antiquity by a farmer, supposedly, in the region) could not be fully reliable, but the date was somewhere between 300K and 400K, closer to the latter, if I recall correctly.

For completeness, this is a modern South African cell phone tower.
Here’s the thing. Assume for a minute, and this is a major oversimplification but I’ll defend it if necessary, that there is some sort of reasonable association between species or subspecies and technology. I’ve already described, just now, how that is messy. The late Homo erectus of the Cape, if I’ve got my story right, were using MSA technology before they were “early modern humans” for example. But that is expected. Just assume that there is a general correlation, for the purpose of a though experiment.

Now, go out in that thought experiment landscape and imagine looking for both artifacts and diagnostic skull bits, so you can put the story together of a few different hominins over time, one evolving into the other, and their material culture, especially their stone tool technology.

You will figure out the boundaries in time and space of the technologies long before you verify the species or subspecies by the remains of their actual heads. the reason for that should be obvious, but if it isn’t, just go around the city and look at all the litter you find. Look carefully at all the litter. Cal me as soon as one of the pieces of litter is a human head. Actually, call 911 first, then me.

This new find is a head butting, perhaps, against the early time range for this species, previously expected from the Fauersmith theory.

I fully expect the key points in the article to be ignored and for Sub Saharan Africa to be broken off from the rest of Africa so that this find can be European/West Asian in stead of Africa, but to address that I’ll quickly tell you this; The Sahara may not have even existed then, so there may not have been a Sub Saharan Africa. Just an Africa. Where modern humans arose.

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5 thoughts on “The Oldest Human Bones, Jebel Irhoud, Morocco

  1. When I see discussions of ancient technology, I don’t usually see a mention of the material used. Might not the methods be forced to change depending upon the type of stone available in any given area?

  2. Your example would be better done as “Count up all the knives and forks and other implements in your home, then count the number of heads you have”.

    We try to bury our dead. This makes finding skulls out in the open harder, unless you’re going to walk into a cemetary, in which case your argument falls down because you find a lot of skulls there but not a lot of tools, or even just any junk.

    But you find humans and their tools in the kitchen. So count ’em up.

    NOTE: The UK had a kids program called “Educating Henry” where aliens came to earth to talk to the dominant life form on the planet and presumed that this was furniture, given their massively greater numbers, so one of them came down to converse with these lifeforms and took on the likeness of one of the species: a dinner chair.

    Humans have many more chairs than bums.

  3. Anne, good question, and many PhD theses and other research have come out of that question!

    The short answer is, remarkably, no. The various main lithic technologies, across the world, and across time, all seem to be applied in roughly the same way no matter what the material is.

    Having said that, the material does end up mattering in ways that overlay that fundamental pattern. There are super fancy things made in some more recent cultures that are made only on some materials. The clovis people seem to have been special snowflakes when it came to clovis points, eschewing local materials very often, while other folks in other places bent crappy local materials to their will.

    So, at a medium to fine cultural level, and in certain specific areas, it mattered, but much, much less than one would ever have expected.

    Wow, that is a good example. However, I’m not sure if burial of the dead is the key feature here, but it could matter.

    Count the number of glass drinking glasses and relate that to the mass of the food eaten at all the meals the drinking glasses were used at, and relate that to the bodies of the people who all had those meals.

  4. Burial is why your example was poor in today’s arena. Because we don’t see bodies lying around much. But we do put them in specific places and they preclude “junk” from those areas, unlike in days before when junk was called “grave goods”. So your proportion of junk to skulls depends highly today on where you look.

    The point of your quest was to indicate how many more artifacts there are per person, however. And I think that’s a lot easier to make funny and apparent by such things as “how many knives in the kitchen compared to your number of heads?”.

    But drinking glasses and mouths work just as well.

    Something that indicates starkly how many more “things” a person has than their one person would indicate numerically.

    Therefore you see vastly more artifacts, and those artifacts would also be less disturbed by scavengers, unless the rats were REALLY smart and worked out how to use an arrowhead to mug the cats, so you would see the “speciation” of tools used far earlier than the speciation by body parts left behind.

    Triply so because not only are there more of them, but that they also don’t get scattered as much, and lastly that they tend to be more durable. We don’t use skulls to bash other people’s heads in because stones are harder and work better for that use.

    So skulls may be found every thousand years of speciation in good enough condition to tell the morphology of the species, but you’ll see the speciation of tools left behind on a number-of-decades-scale. Most of the time, therefore, the tools predate the skulls of the hominid species that made them.

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