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Around 400,000 years ago, pre-modern hominids — likely Neanderthals — at a Middle Pleistocene site in Italy appropriated elephant carcasses to produce an unprecedented array of bone tools — some crafted with sophisticated methods that wouldn’t become common for another 100,000 years, according to new research led by University of Colorado Boulder archaeologists.
“We see other sites with bone tools at this time. But there isn’t this variety of well-defined shapes,” said Dr. Paola Villa, an adjoint curator at the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History and a researcher at the Istituto Italiano di Paleontologia Umana.
Dr. Villa and colleagues examined artifacts from Castel di Guido, an open-air archaeological site about 20 km from Rome, on the southern side of the Monti Sabatini volcanic complex.
The site was excavated between 1979 and 1991 on an area of 1,100 m2. The excavations produced a large number of faunal remains and artifacts (all small and large tools plus cores, percussors and unretouched flakes).
“Hundreds of thousands of years ago, it was the location of a gully that had been carved by an ephemeral stream, an environment where straight-tusked elephants (Palaeoloxodon antiquus) quenched their thirst and, occasionally, died,” the archaeologists said.
“The Castel di Guido hominids made good use of the remains, occupying the site off and on over the years.”
“They produced tools using a systematic, standardized approach, a bit like a single individual working on a primitive assembly line.”
In the study, the researchers identified a total of 98 elephant bone tools from the Castel di Guido site.
Some tools were pointed and could, theoretically, have been used to cut meat. Others were wedges that may have been helpful for splitting heavy elephant femurs and other long bones.
But one tool stood out from the rest: a single artifact carved from a wild cattle bone that was long and smooth at one end.
It resembles what archaeologists call a ‘lissoir,’ or a smoother, a type of tool that hominids used to treat leather. Lissoir tools didn’t become common until about 300,000 years ago.
“At other sites 400,000 years ago, people were just using whatever bone fragments they had available,” Dr. Villa said.
The authors suspect that the Castel di Guido hominids were Neanderthals.
“About 400,000 years ago, you start to see the habitual use of fire, and it’s the beginning of the Neanderthal lineage. This is a very important period for Castel di Guido,” Dr. Villa noted.
“The Castel di Guido people had cognitive intellects that allowed them to produce complex bone technology.”
“At other assemblages, there were enough bones for people to make a few pieces, but not enough to begin a standardized and systematic production of bone tools.”
The findings were published in the journal PLoS ONE.
P. Villa et al. 2021. Elephant bones for the Middle Pleistocene toolmaker. PLoS ONE 16 (8): e0256090; doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0256090