Tiny Flakes Tell a Story of Tool Use 300,000 Years Ago

Tiny chips of flint discovered by archaeologists at the Lower Paleolithic site of Schöningen, Lower Saxony.

When prehistoric people re-sharpened cutting tools 300,000 years ago, they dropped tiny chips of flint – which today yield evidence of how wood was processed by early humans. (Image: via Scientific Reports)

When prehistoric people re-sharpened cutting tools 300,000 years ago, they dropped tiny chips of flint — which today yield evidence of how wood was processed by early humans. The small flint flakes were discovered at the Lower Paleolithic site of Schöningen, Lower Saxony, Germany. Now, a multidisciplinary team led by the University of Tübingen and the Senckenberg Centre for Human Evolution and Palaeoenvironment (SHEP) in Tübingen has analyzed this very old material for the information it can provide. The study has been published in Scientific Reports.

The 57 small stone chips and three bone implements for re-sharpening stone tools were discovered around the skeleton of a Eurasian straight-tusked elephant that had died on the shore of a lake about 300,000 years ago. Dr. Jordi Serangeli, director of the archaeological excavations in Schöningen, said:

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“We can prove, among other things, from these finds that people — probably Homo heidelbergensis or early Neanderthals — were in the vicinity of the elephant carcass. This site is located about two meters below the famous site of the world’s oldest spears.”

Archeological resharpening flake from the elephant area at the site Schöningen 13 II-3. (a) microflake ID 30255; (b) microresidues stuck on the dorsal proximal retouch scars and interpreted as tiny woody remains (Magnification: 200x); (c) microresidues of wood adhering on the butt (Magnification: 500x, dark field); (d,e) soil particles adhering to the dorsal surface and related FTIR spectroscopic absorptions showing a high concentration of calcium carbonate (Magnification in (d): 12.5x). (Image: via Scientific Reports (2022))

A snapshot of Stone Age life

Tübingen researcher Flavia Venditti, the study’s lead author, says the story of the Stone Age is told mainly via the study of objects worked by our ancestors, adding:

“One is inclined to believe that large tools such as knives, scrapers and points are more significant than simple flakes, especially when they are small and really just a byproduct of tool production. But even microscopic stone chips, in the context of the overall evidence, can tell us a lot about the way of life of our ancestors.”

Most of the fragments studied were smaller than one centimeter, Venditti reports, saying:

“Through a multidisciplinary approach that included technological and spatial analysis, the study of residues and signs of use, and methods of experimental archaeology, we were able to obtain more of the Stone Age story from these stone chips. The small flakes come from knife-like tools, they were knocked off during re-sharpening.”

The chips fell to the ground, where they stayed when the people moved on with their tools, she said.

Archeological macro and microscopic residues identified on the lithic tool artifacts from the elephant area.
Archeological macro and microscopic residues identified on the lithic tool artifacts from the elephant area at Schöningen 13 II-3. (a-c) macroscopic use-related residues embedded and smeared in the retouch scars of the resharpening flakes ID 30251, ID 29716 (Magnification: 56x) and on the butt of resharpening flake ID 30255 (Magnification: 200x); (d-f) extracted micro-use related residues consisting of wood tissues and cortex particles observed in transmitted and polarized light on microflake ID 30251 (Magnification: 500x (d,e) and 400x (f). (Image: via Scientific Reports (2022))

Evidence of woodworking

Fifteen pieces showed signs of use typical of working fresh wood, Venditti said:

“Microscopic wood residues remained attached to what had been the tool edges.”

In addition, micro use-wear on a sharp-edged natural flint fragment proved that people used it to cut fresh animal tissue, she said:

“Probably this flint was used in the butchering of the elephant.”

These results are further evidence of the combined use of stone, bone, and plant technologies 300,000 years ago, as has been documented several times in Schöningen, Venditti says. Professor Nicholas Conard from Tübingen and head of the Schöningen research project emphasizes:

“This study shows how detailed analyses of traces of use and microresidues can provide information from small artifacts that are often ignored. This is the first study to produce such comprehensive results from 300,000 years old re-sharpening flakes. The prerequisite for this kind of research is that the artifacts are handled with extreme care from excavation throughout the analyses.”

The archaeological excavation at the Paleolithic sites in Schöningen and the scientific investigation are a long-term project of the University of Tübingen in cooperation with the Senckenberg Nature Research Society and the State Heritage Office of Lower Saxony. The project is funded by the Lower Saxony Ministry of Science and Culture in Hanover.

Provided by Universitaet Tübingen [Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.]

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