This stone was originally found in three pieces (the picture shows two angles) and has now been evaluated as the oldest grinding tool dated to 350,000 years ago. Credit: Iris Groman-Yaroslavski

Some 350,000 Years Ago, Humans Used This Abrading Tool

Decades after it was originally discovered, scientists determined that this 350,000-year-old stone is the oldest abrading tool.

Re-analysis of finds made during excavations in the Tabun Cave (Israel) showed that one of the artifacts – a rounded dolomite stone – was a tool for polishing surfaces. This abrading tool, made about 350,000 years ago, pushed the birth date of grinding technology by 150,000 years.

The Tabun Cave is located on the Carmel Range, in the northwest of modern Israel. It was first surveyed by archaeologists in 1931 and immediately became a site for the discovery of fossil remains of Middle Paleolithic people and tools of the Mousterian type.

The population of the cave, traces of which were discovered in the 1930s, belonged to the classical Neanderthals. These findings are approximately 200,000 to 40,000 years old.

The second, more ancient cultural layer was found and investigated by the expedition of Artur Jelinek in 1967-1972. Archaeologists have since found more than 1900 stone choppers of the Late Acheulean and Acheulo-Yabrudian type, belonging to the Late Lower Paleolithic.

The oldest of them is estimated at 350,000 years old. Among these tools was a rounded dolomite cobblestone which we now know as the oldest abrading tool.

Archaeologists during excavations at the Tabun Cave. Credit: University of Haifa
Archaeologists during excavations at the Tabun Cave. Credit: University of Haifa

The initial study of which did not reveal any significant features at that time. Recently, a group of Israeli archaeologists from the Prehistoric Research Laboratory of the University of Haifa, led by Ron Shimelmitz, examined the artifact in detail, more than half a century since it was originally discovered.

Archaeologists studied microscopic traces of mechanical damage on the surface of the instrument and concluded that they appeared as a result of abrasive wear. The reason for this was the regular horizontal movement of a wide working surface over some relatively soft material.

In order to determine whether the appearance of traces is associated with purposeful human activity, the researchers analyzed the wear resistance of the dolomite rock from which the tool was made. In addition, they carried out an experimental test of the hypothesis of the abrasive origin of the marks on the stone. Nine similar samples were tested on basalt, medium hardwood, and deerskin surfaces.

The most similar traces of abrasion (wavy surface texture with groups of shallow grooves) were obtained when the tool interacted with the skin. This result indirectly indicates the scope of the tool, although it cannot be unambiguously judged on its basis that the tool was used specifically for processing skins.

Other similar tools known to scientists, used for grinding surfaces, are 150,000 years younger than the find from Tabun Cave. It was believed that earlier than 200,000 years ago, abrasion was unknown to humans since all older tools only show traces of impact damage.

It is not yet known what species the people who made and used this grinding tool belonged to. However, it is clear that already at the end of the Lower Paleolithic, the cognitive abilities and motor skills of the hand had developed so much that they made it possible to perform grinding actions that were fundamentally new for hominids.

Previously, scientists found that stone balls from another Israeli cave – Kesem – served to crush bones, from which people extracted bone marrow, and also found that already 1.8 million years ago, hominids from the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania were able to choose material for a tool for a specific task.

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Belkin, D., Blum, B., Leichman, A., Barak, N., Levy, T., Staff, I., & Belkin, D. (2021, January 25). Oldest-ever cave tool hints at 350,000-year-old ingenuity.
Bower, B. (2021, January 21). The oldest KNOWN ABRADING tool was used around 350,000 years ago.
Shimelmitz, R., Groman-Yaroslavski, I., Weinstein-Evron, M., & Rosenberg, D. (2020, December 01). A middle Pleistocene ABRADING tool FROM Tabun Cave, israel: A search for the roots of ABRADING technology in human evolution.
Winer, S., Somekh, S., Staff, T., Agencies, T., Afp, AAMER MADHANI, M., . . . Simon, G. (2020, December 27). Stone found in Israel is oldest known tool in world used for ‘DELICATE’ ABRADING.

Written by Vladislav Tchakarov

Hello, my name is Vladislav and I am glad to have you here on Curiosmos. As a history student, I have a strong passion for history and science, and the opportunity to research and write in this field on a daily basis is a dream come true.

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