Photo Credit: Prof. Ran Barkai
Recycled flint splinter

Researchers at Tel Aviv University led by post-doctoral student Flavia Vanity, Prof. Ran Barkai, and Prof. Avi Gofer of the Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Cultures, used advanced microscopes and advanced chemical methods to identify the uses of thousands of tiny flint tools found in the Qesem cave near Rosh Ha’ayin in central Israel.

Based on the signs of use and the organic remains that were preserved on the tools, the researchers determined that the tiny stone tools were used mainly for surgical cuts in hunted animals and plants. The research shows that the tiny stone tools, which were previously considered waste material and were ignored by many researchers, constitute an excellent example of the complexity of the toolbox of prehistoric man, and his dedication to the principle of recycling.

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The research was conducted in collaboration with Rome University of and the Institute for Nanoscale Architecture in Rome. Its results were published by the Journal of Human Evolution (Recycling for a purpose in the late Lower Paleolithic Levant: Use-wear and residue analyses of small sharp flint items indicate a planned and integrated subsistence behavior at Qesem Cave [Israel]).

The paper’s abstract reads: “The purposeful production of small flakes is integral to the lithic variability of many Middle Pleistocene sites. Inhabitants of the Acheulo-Yabrudian site of Qesem Cave, Israel, systematically recycled ‘old’ discarded blanks and tools, using them as cores for the production of small sharp tools with distinct technological features.

“These recycling end-products were produced in significant quantities throughout the human occupation of Qesem Cave, and their outstanding state of preservation made possible a functional analysis with residue detection using Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR) and energy-dispersive X-ray spectroscopy (SEM-EDX).

Using a flint chip to cut bulbs / Flavia Vanity

“An experimental program accompanying the study tested the efficiency of each tool category, and a reference collection of the organic remains was assembled. Our integrated results show that small flakes were used mainly to process soft to medium animal material through precise cutting activities that required accurate longitudinal motions.

“Several items show clear and exclusive contact with bone while others were used for designated steps in hide treatment processes. Plant and tuber processing are also evidenced although to a lesser extent.

“We show that the end products of recycling ‘old’ flakes reflect preconceived technological and functional characteristics produced in a targeted manner to obtain specific tools designated for anticipated practical tasks.

“We demonstrate the complementary role of the products of recycling within the Qesem Cave tool-kits alongside larger tools in assisting early humans in the different stages of processing animal materials.

“Moreover, use-wear and residue evidence indicates that Qesem hominins differentiated their activities across space in the cave. We argue that the meticulous realization of specific tasks and the deliberate, repetitive, and skilled production of tools of different sizes and shapes is one characteristic of the new mode of adaptation practiced by Acheulo-Yabrudian hominins in the Levant in order to better manipulate the available resources following the disappearance of mega-herbivores.”

“Prehistoric man who lived in Qesem Cave wasted nothing,” concluded Prof. Barkai. “Every animal they hunted and any plant they collected was fully utilized to maximize human survival, and from each tool that became worn-out or discarded, other tools were produced. In fact, he was a natural recycler, as an integral part of his life. We certainly have much to learn from him… “

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