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Lower Palaeolithic

While looking out some unprovenanced stone tools this morning, I was intrigued to find a rather unusual stone tool. Removing it from the box, I saw that its label said that it was from Somaliland (now Somalia) and recalled that the Accessions Register for Letchworth Museum records the donation of six stone tools from there. The most striking aspect of this tool is that although it is clearly a product of human workmanship, it is quite unlike any other stone tool I have ever handled.

Oldowan chopper from Somalia

Oldowan chopper 1932.6240, from Somalia

The tool is not made from flint or from any of the igneous rocks sometimes employed (especially for making polished stone tools in the Neolithic and Bronze Age) but from a highly granular quartz-rich pinkish rock. It has been very roughly shaped from a river pebble to produce one rough cutting edge. From these characteristics, I could tell that it is probably an Oldowan tool. These are the oldest stone tools we know that humans made and date from about 2.6 to 1.7 million years ago. It seems to be associated with the earliest representatives of the genus Homo (Homo habilis and Homo ergaster) and perhaps with Australopithecus garhi.

So what is it doing in the collections of North Hertfordshire Museums? The Accessions Register notes that it was donated by Heywood Walter Seton-Karr (1859-1938), a soldier, explorer and big game hunter who, as an amateur archaeologist, discovered the African Palaeolithic. In a series of publications in the Journal of the Anthropological Institute, he explained that they had come from a low hill on the right bank of a sand river, the Issutugan, roughly mid-way between the port of Berbera and the town of Hargeisa to the south-west. This is arid, inhospitable country that was part of the British Protectorate of Somaliland from 1888 to 1960.

The hill where this tool was found

The hill where this tool was found is in the centre of the photograph

Heywood Seton-Karr seems to have collected many hundreds of flints, which have ended up in museums all over the world. Although some of his ideas now appear repugnant to us today (he left a bequest to the Eugenics Society), he was a man of his time whose discoveries in Africa convinced him that all humans shared a single origin (although he wrongly assumed it to have been in the East) and were thus a single race.

Even though it is not relevant to the archaeology of North Hertfordshire, it is exciting to have this sort of object in the collection, as it provides a tangible link to the very origins of human behaviour. It stands a good chance of being our oldest artefact.

How can we tell how people in the past thought? In literate societies such as ours, we can read the thoughts of other people, written down as words in diaries for instance, but for most of human history, people have not been able to read or write. Indeed, if you go back more than five thousand years, writing did not exist. Trying to work out how people thought in remote prehistory may seem an impossible task but very occasionally, clues survive that can help us.

Broken handaxe from Highbury, Hitchin

Broken handaxe from Highbury, Hitchin (Accession Numbers 1976.693 and 1976.686)

One example of just such a clue comes in the shape of a handaxe from Hitchin. Handaxes were not axes for chopping wood but were multi-purpose tools, used for well over 1½ million years in Africa, Europe and much of Asia. Hitchin is an important find-spot of these tools, many of which were discovered while digging for the clay that was important to the town’s brick-making industry in the late nineteenth century. Local geologists and antiquaries became intrigued by the discoveries and began to collect them. One of the most prominent of these was William Ransom (1826-1914), who amassed a considerable collection of stone tools from sites around the town (principally The Folly pit on Stevenage Road, Benslow, Highbury and Bearton Green pit). As well as the stone tools, he was interested in animal bones and collected specimens of bear, straight-tusked elephant and rhinoceros, which show that the handaxes were dropped in a warm, fertile landscape. These tell us when the layers containing them formed: during the middle of a warm period during the Pleistocene known as the Hoxnian Interglacial, around 424,000 to 374,000 years ago.

This means that the Hitchin artefacts are extremely ancient, dating from about 400,000 years ago. This was a time when Europe was inhabited by people of a different species from us, Homo heidelbergensis, probably the ancestor of the Neanderthals but not of ourselves. So, you would think that their behaviour would be very different. One of the handaxes from Highbury in Hitchin suggests otherwise.

Papel label on the back of the handaxe

Papel label on the back of the handaxe

This is a broken handaxe; according to a paper label stuck to it, “The point found 4 days before the larger point about 4 ft apart and 6 ft deep. Nr Hitchin 29.XI.1880”. In other words, the two parts of the broken tool were not found together. Why might this have happened? We know from studies of handaxes that they were constantly reworked to sharpen blunted edges and to repair broken tips. This has not happened with this particular handaxe: when the tip snapped off, both parts were discarded without reworking.

A twisted ovate handaxe

A twisted ovate handaxe; this type shows evidence for considerable repair and reworking

This looks very like deliberate throwing away. In fact, it looks almost as if one of the broken elements (it is impossible to say which) was thrown a short distance in temper and the user was too angry to rework the tool into something useful. This looks just like modern human behaviour: who hasn’t been so frustrated when something breaks that they throw it down in disgust? Yet we are dealing with a completely different species from ourselves. What this seems to tell me is that at least some extinct hominids behaved like us, had similar emotions and were not the lumbering brutes of popular culture. Just because they lacked the complex technologies of modern society does not mean that they were “primitive” or “savages”: different, yes, but just like us in so many ways.