These 500,000-Year-Old Tools Still Contain Traces Of Animal Fat

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Archaeologists working in Israel have made an extraordinary discovery — the earliest instance of Lower Paleolithic-Acheulian stone bifaces and scrapers with the residue of elephant fat still on them. It's considered an archaeological first.


Top image: The flint biface. The blue dots represent the location of the fatty residue.

The tools, a flint biface hand axe and a scraper, were discovered at Revadim, an excavation site in southern Israel that was occupied by early hominids, possibly Homo erectus, some 500,000 years ago. In addition to this find, an elephant rib with cut marks was found in association with the tools, an indication that these early humans consumed big game.

It's not known, however, if the elephants were hunted or scavenged — a point of contention amongst anthropologists.

What isn't contentious, however, is the realization that early humans ate elephants; pachyderm remains have already been linked to human consumption.

"Elephants and mammoths," write the authors in the study, "were by far the largest terrestrial mammal available for Palaeolithic hominins, and these large animals represent a unique food package in terms of the composition of fat and meat," adding that "While some scholars still argue that in Palaeolithic times humans were scavengers, most researchers nowadays strongly advocate hunting as the principal method for obtaining calories, based on new results of sets of analyses of the archaeological record."

That said, the new discovery offered no evidence in favor of this contention.

Image for article titled These 500,000-Year-Old Tools Still Contain Traces Of Animal Fat

The flint flake.

During the Lower Paleolithic-Acheulian era, humans manufactured very specific forms of tools, including distinctive oval and pear-shaped hand-axes and two-sided tools processed on each side to enable tasks other than cutting. Scrapers were typically used when working with wood or hides, but the archaeologists, a team led by Professor Ran Barkai of Tel Aviv University, said they could have also been used in butchering.


The researchers write:

The biface and scraper show well preserved and clear use-wear traces, including both edge removals and polishes. The biface use traces indicate the processing of medium-hard material throughout transversal motions, related probably to hide scraping. In the case of the scraper, the traces shows attributes associated with soft or medium material processed throughout longitudinal motion. The possible interpretation is cutting of animal tissues. Another kind of polish, that could be associated with wood, was also detected.


As for the discovery of adipocere — animal fat — on the tools, the identification was made using the Fourier Transform InfraRed (FTIR) spectra, a technology that's rarely applied to finds of this nature. The archaeologists decided to analyze the tools because they featured red spots, which indicated some sort of residue. Interestingly, they were also able to identify bone micro residue and vegetable materials.

Image for article titled These 500,000-Year-Old Tools Still Contain Traces Of Animal Fat

The elephant rib.

"Our results allow us to speculate about the possible use of these tools in processing animal carcasses," conclude the authors. "Elephants, being the most common animal within the faunal assemblage on site, and the presence of cut marks on an elephant our suggestion that these stone tools might have been used on elephant carcasses (and other game as well)."


Read the entire study at PLoS One: "Fat Residue and Use-Wear Found on Acheulian Biface and Scraper Associated with Butchered Elephant Remains at the Site of Revadim, Israel".

Images: N. Solodenko et al./PLOS

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So the Lower Paleolithic-Acheulian diet consisted of sneaking up on possibly dead elephants stabbing chunks of fat off of them and running before a scavenging lion or hyena pack used you as an entrée?

Nope, I'm not doing this paleo diet thing!