Who Made the First Stone Tools?

The evolutionary path from early primates to Homo sapiens is difficult to trace with any accuracy and continues to be hotly debated. But there are a couple of important signposts in the fossil record. The transition to bipedalism – upright walking – is suggested by analysis of limb bones of the genus Australopithecus and rather spectacularly confirmed by the Laetoli footprints, determined to be 3.6 million years old.

The earliest stone tools, discovered by Louis Leakey in Olduvai Gorge, northern Tanzania, were later associated with fossils of the earliest examples of the genus Homo, called Homo habilis (‘Handy Man’), about 2.5 million years old. For more than 80 years, stone tools have been a key signpost on the evolutionary path to modern humans.

But science is often full of surprises, and prevailing wisdom can be quickly overturned. In May 2015, a team of palaeontologists published evidence of stone tools from Lomekwi 3, an archaeological site in West Turkana, Kenya, dated to 3.3 million years ago. It’s not entirely clear who the makers were, but Australopithecus afarensis is a possible candidate.

Australopithecus is a human ancestor, but was distinctly ape-human. But it seems that the spectacular cognitive leap that set us on the road to intelligence was not made by Homo, after all.

Clever apes.