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Home / Science / how did we find Europe’s oldest bone tools – and what we learned about the people who built them

how did we find Europe’s oldest bone tools – and what we learned about the people who built them



Boxgrove in Sussex, England, is an iconic site of the Stone Age. This is where the oldest human remains in England were discovered – the fossils of Homo heidelbergensis. Part of a specially preserved 26 km wide ancient rock landscape, it offers a virtually untouched record of primitive humans almost half a million years ago.

The site’s most well-preserved area is known as the “Horse Slaughter”, where a large horse was killed and processed about 480,000 years ago. Since 1994, we have worked on bone and stone artifacts from here – some of the earliest artifacts in Europe ̵

1; as part of a multidisciplinary group led by the UCL Archaeological Institute. This has given us important insights into the lives of mysterious people Homo heidelbergensis, which we have just released in a book.

My own research focuses on stone artifacts – more than 1,750 pieces of flint that have been honed. The tools, along with the bones of a large mare, were discovered over a quarter of a century ago, and the location of each artifact was drawn millimeter-precise.

This degree of recording is achieved without the need for laser survey and digital imaging equipment – the two main methods of recording today’s modern archaeological site. Instead, the excavation team used aerial photography, a dark room set up in a local pub, and pens to meticulously record the location of each stone tool and bone fragment.

Before we can explain what the original humans did at this site, we must understand the ruins of the mines. These surveys show that the sediments themselves appear to be intertidal marshland, formed at the edge of a lagoon during warm climates. When the first humans slaughtered the horse, a high tide came, preserving the site as it did when the hominins had moved.

Conservation like this is very rare in any archaeological period, even recent ones. Fine mud layers buried the site over one or more high tides without moving the artifacts or bones significantly. This means that we can reproduce original human behavior in a high level of resolution.

Stone age jigsaw

My job is to put together the stone artifacts from the site – a process known as “refitting”. Each piece of rock removed by the ancient man would only be relevant, unique, with other pieces of rock removed from the same igneous mass just before and after it.

Knapping scatters from Boxgrove.
UCL Archaeological Institute, Author provided

Retouching can give you the full picture of how an individual creates a tool, adjusts and solves problems, sometimes changes positions as they take perhaps ten or 15 minutes to Craft each tool.

From retooling we can record the production of eight large cutting tools (known as hand or double sided knives), modification of other pre-existing tools, and preparation of flint blocks was taken to the location.

A social place

When combined with bone reshuffle, our detailed research has revealed a remarkable insight into a day in the lives of these elusive people. While all activities were focused on tooling and horse shooting, we were able to track detailed movements during the day.

We found that debris was transferred from the pile of waste materials at the edge of the area to remove the meat from the animals. Horse parts are also used as bone tools (see lead photo) to craft new tools, as revealed by accidental impressions of horse knees and legs left as shadows in waste fragments. This shows that people already understand the properties of organic materials.

The tools discovered at Boxgrove.
UCL Archaeological Institute, Author provided

The movement of the piece, the production of large cutting tools, and the bringing of older, weathered artifacts and blocks or raw materials to the site indicates that a relatively large number of people have participated in the site. join the butcher profession. Given the extensive processing of the horse’s hull, we believe it can include a large family that can have 30 or more individuals.

This is extremely valuable information, because we know so little about other aspects of the Boxgrove’s life. For example, we don’t know where they sleep, how they take care of the dead, or what they eat alongside horses. Archeological records are mainly focused on where their activities accumulate durable materials such as rocks and bones, which greatly shape our views on early humans.

As a result, our stories sometimes focus on compartmentalized areas of early human life, such as ecology or technology. But a locality like the Boxgrove Horse Butchery Site reminds us, in consideration of detail, that all aspects of human adaptation are tuned through our most powerful evolutionary adaptations. : social and cultural life.

The Boxgrove, like all human species, has the ability to share time, interest and knowledge in all parts of their lives. These connections, even in the most everyday jobs, have always contributed to our success and resilience.


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