Oldest stone tools have been discovered in Kenya, but they weren’t used by humans
An illustration of the species Paranthropus robustus. Photo courtesy of Micheal Long and Science Photo Library.

Oldest stone tools have been discovered in Kenya, but they weren’t used by humans

It was a stormy day in Kenya in 2017: paleoanthropologist Emma Finestone was recording the location of fossils when she made a shocking discovery. The team was removing the skeleton of an ancient hippo when they found a molar intermingled with early Oldowan tools. However, the molar did not belong to a human ancestor.

The molar belonged to the genus Paranthropus, an extinct hominid and primate. This genus contained several species that roamed across Africa approximately 1.2 to 2.8 million years ago. This human relative was known for its large teeth and ape-like skull. However, they were not known to make tools.

The tools that were discovered near the fossil date back to approximately 2.8 million years ago and are the oldest known tools to be discovered. These tools are considered to be Oldowan tools which consist of stones and are known to be the oldest tools used by hominin.

Scientists debate the probability of Paranthropus making and using the tools themselves. However, this is not the first discovery of stone tools found alongside Paranthropus fossils. A skull with a large jaw and teeth was also discovered in 1955 by Louis and Mary Leakey. This skull is now classified as Paranthropus boisei and was nicknamed the Nutcracker Man. This fossil was discovered within the same 1.8 million year-old sediment layer of Oldowan tools. 

However, found within the same layer was a skull belonging to Homo habilis, a human ancestor. Therefore, the maker of the tools was thought to be the species belonging to the same genus as humans. 

“The association of these Nyayanga tools with Paranthropus may reopen the case as to who made the oldest Oldowan tools,” Anthropologist Thomas Plummer of Queens College stated.

This recent discovery reopens the mystery of what species made the earliest Oldowan tools, but seems to leave more questions than answers. It was previously thought that human ancestors were the makers of these early stone tools, but this discovery suggests otherwise. Why would primates need to use tools when they had strong jaws and teeth to process food? Who made these tools? Is it possible that Paranthropus had the ability to create these tools? Only time will tell.

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