Photo Credit: Dr. Iris Gruman-Yaroslavsky
The tool, a rounded dolomite stone with microscopic abrasion marks on it.

A new study published in the prestigious Journal of Human Evolution by researchers from the Zinman Institute of Archaeology at the University of Haifa (A Middle Pleistocene abrading tool from Tabun Cave, Israel: A search for the roots of abrading technology in human evolution) identifies the earliest tool to date which was used for the erosion of various materials about 350,000 years ago, even before the appearance of Homo sapiens.

The tool, a rounded dolomite pebble with microscopic abrasion marks on it, was discovered in the Tabun Cave, an excavated site located at Nahal Me’arot Nature Reserve on Mount Carmel, Israel, and has been recognized for almost a century as a key site for the study of human evolution. The cave was occupied intermittently during the Lower and Middle Paleolithic eras and bears evidence of a sequence of archaeological strata that indicate hominin activity in the last half-million years. The pebble in question is about 150,000 years older than any other vessel in the world that bears evidence of intentional erosion.


“The extraordinary discovery from Tabun Cave shows that hominins processed various materials through their erosion about 350,000 years ago, meaning that already at such an early stage a very significant technology was added to their ‘toolbox’ which teaches us that they could and wanted to process different materials in a variety of ways to improve and maximize the ways in which they utilized environmental resources,” the researchers said.

Tabun Cave / Dr. Ron Schimmelmitz

The unique find was unveiled as part of a new project led by Dr. Ron Schimmelmitz, Dr. Iris Gruman-Yaroslavsky, Prof. Mina Weinstein-Evron, and Prof. Danny Rosenberg with other partners in Israel and around the world. The study was supported by the National Science Foundation, the Garda Henkel Foundation, and the Dan David Foundation.

While scanning the findings unearthed in excavations conducted in the cave by Prof. Arthur Jelinek of the University of Arizona in the late 1960s that have not yet been investigated and published, Dr. Schimmelmitz noticed clear abrasion marks on one of the pebbles, which are typical of much later stone vessels, but not from vessels dated hundreds of thousands of years old. A careful study of the item in the laboratories of the Zinman Institute of Archeology allowed for a systematic distinguishing between the weather erosion and the signs of use on its surface.

The study, which was conducted together with Prof. Danny Rosenberg, head of the Laboratory for the Study of Stone Vessels and Ancient Food Processing Technologies, and Dr. Iris Grumman-Yaroslavsky, head of the Laboratory for the study of signs of use, focused on the microscopic analysis of the pebble. The results of the study showed that the pebble does, indeed, bear characteristic signs indicating that the ancient vessel was operated in a horizontal motion – from side to side, i.e. in a motion of grinding.

To understand and interpret the patterns they identified under a microscope, the researchers conducted a series of controlled abrasion experiments using dolomite pebbles collected on the Carmel which were similar in their characteristics to the pebbles from the Tabun Cave. In these experiments, different materials were worn over different periods using the pebbles, which were immediately subjected to a microscopic examination in which the erosion models created in the experiments were documented.

“While the results did not show a perfect match between the wear patterns documented on the unique pebble and those we documented in the experimental study we conducted, we found many similarities to the signs of wear and tear obtained as a result of processing animal skins and from this, we have concluded that the ancient pebble was used for the grinding of soft materials, although we do not yet know exactly which ones,” said Dr. Grumman-Yaroslavsky.

“While the tool is seemingly ‘simple,’ its early appearance and the fact that it has no parallel at such an early stage of human evolution give it global importance,” the researchers said.

According to them, the early emergence of erosion technology demonstrates the depth and complexity of the chain of technological innovations associated with human evolution. When did hominins start to erode food and other substances? Where did it happen, and why? These are some of the questions that concern the researchers of human evolution.

“In fact, the evolution of the next technology reflected in stone tools directly reflects the models of change in the abilities of the ancient hominins to shape their environment,” said Dr. Schimmelmitz, adding, “The period of 200-400 thousand years ago is a period of important technological innovations and significant changes in human behavior. For example, the use of fire becomes part of the day-to-day routine, and the use of base sites from which they go out for various activities becomes a way of life. In this way, erosion technology does not appear by its own but is intertwined with an array of broader changes that to some extent foreshadow the complex behavior familiar to us from later hominins – the Neanderthals and Homo sapiens.”

As mentioned above, the next evidence of tools being used for erosion is found only about 150,000 years later. Was this ability lost until it was “found” again after so many years?

“Although we were not able to tie the food processing item with certainty, there is a high probability that it was used this way,” Prof. Rosenberg concluded, adding, “Be that as it may, to us, who are engaged in the archaeology of food and its methods of processing in the various periods, from prehistory to the present day, the small pebble is of great importance because it allows us to trace the earliest sources of the abrasion action. and how cognitive and motor abilities that have evolved over the course of human evolution have finally evolved into important phenomena in human culture to this day, and whose origins involved the erosion and development of techniques for food production, such as moving to a permanent settlement, agriculture, storage, and later to an increase in social and economic complexity.”


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