News

Ancient North African tools show hominins were apt butchers

Published online 4 December 2018

Hundreds of stone tools and cut-marked animal bones found in Algeria provide evidence that the early ancestors of humans began manufacturing tools in North Africa earlier than previously thought — and they were skilled butchers.

Louise Sarant

Sharp-edged cutting flake used for processing animal meat.
Sharp-edged cutting flake used for processing animal meat.
Mohamed Sahnouni
Two-million-year-old tools found in east Algeria are the oldest ever found in North Africa by 500,000 years. The 296 animal bones and 250 flints, flakes and round cores used for cutting, chopping and hammering were discovered by lead archaeologist Mohamed Sahnouni and his team of international scientists over a 20-year digging period. 

Clear cut marks observed on animal bones buried in sediment layers at Ain Boucherit, an excavation site located 100 kilometres inland from the Mediterranean Sea in eastern Algeria, testify that hominins used sharpened tools to carve out meat from carcasses, revealing a level of technological advancement that surprised the scientists. 

“North African hominins’ sophisticated stone technology allowed them to successfully compete with carnivores for meat acquisition,” says Mohamed Sahnouni, coordinator of an investigation of prehistoric technology at the National Center for the Investigation of Human Evolution (CENIEH) in Burgos, Spain. Ain Boucherit has produced the largest known sample of excavated materials from a single site, he says, allowing stronger inferences to be made on how hominins butchered animal carcasses. 

The Algerian Oldowan tools, named after Olduvai, the Tanzanian site where the first prehistoric stone tools were found in the 1930s, closely resemble the East African ones. They were manufactured just 200,000 years later than the most ancient prehistoric stone tools ever identified in East Africa. “The similarity tells us that, in both regions, early hominins had a good knowledge of rock flaking physical properties,” Sahnouni says.

Members of the team excavating at Ain Boucherit.
Members of the team excavating at Ain Boucherit.
Mohamed Sahnouni
The discovery in Algeria questions the leading narrative of East Africa being the single cradle of Homo evolution. Sahnouni posits that East African tool manufacturing could have rapidly expanded to North Africa or that hominins developed their stone technologies simultaneously in both regions. The latter would support the assumption that human culture emerged in more than one place on the African continent.

Max Planck evolutionary anthropologist Shannon McPherron, who was not involved in the study, believes that stone tools could have been independently invented several times over. “It is quite possible that a technology as simple as this could have been invented at certain times and places and then lost, before being reinvented again at a later stage,” he says.

So far, the finds in Ain Boucherit haven’t procured evidence of hunting, or yielded hominins’ fossilized remains. However, based on the potential of Ain Boucherit and the adjacent sedimentary basins, the scientists suggest that hominin fossils and Oldowan artefacts as old as the East African ones could be discovered in North Africa.

doi:10.1038/nmiddleeast.2018.153


Sahnouni, M. et al. 1.9-million- and 2.4-million-year-old artifacts and stone tool-cutmarked bones from Ain Boucherit, Algeria. Science http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.aau0008 (2018).