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Archaeologists Discover Tools that Prehistoric Butchers Used 250,000 Years Ago

How many nights have you listlessly laid awake in your bed and stared into the inky abyss of the night sky wondering the following: “Just what in the hell did early man use to butcher rhinos in their quest for Stone Age sustenance?”

by Alex Swerdloff
Aug 10 2016, 7:00pm

Photo via Flickr user robscomputer

How many nights have you listlessly laid awake in your bed and stared into the inky abyss of the night sky wondering the following: "Just what in the hell did early man use to butcher rhinos in their quest for Stone Age sustenance?"

Dozens of times? Hundreds? OK—Maybe we are being a bit facetious. After all, it's probably easier to point to those of us who haven't been perpetually plagued by this all-important question than those who have. But just in case you are in fact obsessed with the nuances of Middle Paleolithic butchery, the answer to your prayers is here, because one intrepid group of archaeologists is about to deliver unto you sweet, sweet respite.

That's right: A group of archaeologists have found a tool used 250,000 years ago to butcher a rhinoceros. The analysis of their findings was published earlier this week in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

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The researchers uncovered 10,000 artifacts at a site in Azraq, Jordan site that had been an oasis for hundreds of thousands of years. There, they found all manner of tiny bits of stone, hand axes, scrapers, and knives—many of which were used to butcher animals. They know this because the tools still had on them traces of the tissue of the animals they helped to kill.

April Nowell, a University of Victoria archaeologist, helped in the discovery. She told The Washington Post that the tools are "almost a smoking gun." That's because they are "the definitive evidence that these tools were used in this way." The findings, she said, "gives sort of a richer picture and a more complex picture of the lives of people 250,000 years ago."

The early humans who used these tools pre-date Homo sapiens and may have been either Homo erectus or Homo heidelbergensis. In either event, the animals they were butchering have now been clearly identified using a type of residue analysis called immunoelectrophoresis, which allowed the blood or tissue left on the tools to be pinpointed.

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What the researchers found was that 17 artifacts came back positive: "We have three for rhino, three for duck, five for horse, three for bovine or wild cattle, three for camel," Nowell said. "The world's oldest identifiable proteins." The findings were the first of their kind: "We're just so excited," she said.

One of the blades that tested positive for rhinoceros is several inches long and appears, like the other tools, to have only been used once. Apparently, prehistoric hunters didn't like to re-use their tools of death.

The scientists are pretty impressed by what they've found out about early man's butchery skills. Nowell said, "It really does take a lot of cognitive sophistication, and a lot of social sophistication."

Now that our collective prayers have finally been answered and the mystery surrounding Middle Paleolithic butchery has been cracked, it's pretty much only a matter of time until we'll all get the uninterrupted sleep that was robbed from us for so very long.