"Cradle of Humanity" Reconsidered in Light of New Stone Tool Discovery

Stone tools may have evolved independently in two ancient sites.

Long before the spork and iPhone, the best tools at humanity’s disposal were stone tools used to chop, scrape, and pound. To date, the oldest known tools were rough stone cores found in Gona, Ethiopia, a site in East Africa that came to be known as the “cradle of humanity” as a result. Now, a new discovery from across the African continent is posing an unprecedented challenge to that title.

In the Science study, an international team of archeologists announce the discovery of stone tools in Algeria that could reshape human history. In a sedimentary basin in Algeria’s high plateau region, alongside the bones of crocodile, elephant, and hippopotamus ancestors, they found stone butchery tools nearly as ancient as those found in the cradle of life.

The tools from Ethiopia, categorized as Oldowan technology, are thought to be around 2.6 million years old. The two groups of tools discovered in Ain Boucherit, Algeria, meanwhile, are dated at 1.9 million years old and an astounding 2.4 million years old.

East Africa has long been considered the site of the earliest human stone manufacturing, but the new tools indicate that people were living in North Africa 600,000 years earlier than previously thought. In light of their discovery, the study authors argue that even older Oldowan artifacts may be found elsewhere in North Africa, rivaling East Africa’s relics in age.

Stone tool artifacts found in Ain Boucherit, Algeria.

Mohamed Sahnouni, et. al.

The team writes:

“Despite its distance from East Africa, the evidence from Ain Boucherit implies either rapid expansion of stone tool manufacture from East Africa to other parts of the continent, or possible multiple origin scenarios of ancestral hominins and stone technology in both East and North Africa.”

The team, led by CENIEH researcher Mohamed Sahnouni, Ph.D., has been examining the Ain Boucherit site for the past eight years. Alongside ancient animal bones, they found the limestone and flint tools, which they dated using three separate techniques.

Unlike in East Africa’s Rift Valley, dating artifacts from Algeria isn’t straightforward. In the Rift Valley, it’s easier to date artifacts because scientists can tell the age of the volcanic deposits in which they are found. There aren’t any such deposits in Algeria, which is why the scientists had to rely on magnetostratigraphy, the dates of the animal bones, and the electron spin resonance of the quartz inside the rocks in order to date them.

Because using these techniques isn’t easy, the scientists point out, they may be part of the reason why there appear to be so many tools coming from East Africa versus Algeria. The London Natural History Museum’s Chris Stringer, Ph.D., a human evolution specialist who was not a part of this study, told Nature that “we should beware of building elaborate origins scenarios based on where we have the best preservation.”

Word is out on who made the tools. Sahnouni and the team haven’t found any hominin remains yet, so it’s to be determined which Homo species created these shards of useful rock. If archaeologists determine that this technology evolved independently in two places, the “cradle of humanity” title will be up for grabs.

What is known is that the “cradle of humanity” — the moniker given to Gona, Ethiopia — might have to share its title with Ain Boucherit in the north if it’s found that this technology evolved independently in two places. Until that’s settled, archeologists will keep on digging.