Europe's earliest bone tools found at excavation in south of England

2020-08-13 China Daily Editor:Feng Shuang

Archaeologists working at a site in West Sussex in the south of England have discovered what are thought to be the earliest examples of bone tools found anywhere in Europe.

One of the oldest organic tools in the world is pictured. The bone hammer was used to make flint knives. [UCL INSTITUTE OF ARCHAEOLOGY/FOR CHINA DAILY

The tools are estimated to be around half a million years old, and made out of bones from a horse killed for meat at the site at Boxgrove, which is well known for its artefacts having been explored extensively in the 1980s and 1990s.

Other animal and also human bones have been found at the site along with hundreds of stone tools, made by a species known as Homo heidelbergensis, a possible ancestor of modern humans.

"This was an exceptionally rare opportunity to examine a site pretty much as it had been left behind by an extinct population, after they had gathered to totally process the carcass of a dead horse on the edge of a coastal marshland," project leader Matthew Pope from University College London's Institute of Archaeology told the BBC.

"Incredibly, we've been able to get as close as we can to witnessing the minute-by-minute movement and behaviors of a single apparently tight-knit group of early humans: a community of people, young and old, working together in a co-operative and highly social way.

"We established early on that there were at least eight individuals at the site making tools, and considered it likely that a small group of adults, a 'hunting party', could have been responsible for the butchery," he continued.

"However, we were astonished to see traces of other activities and movement across the site, which opened the possibility of a much larger group being present."

The significance of bone tools is that these are some of the earliest non-stone tools yet discovered, and would have been used in the manufacturing of flint knives, demonstrating that the people who used them understood the strengths of different organic materials.

Even the horse bones were broken to get marrow out, suggesting that uses for all animal products were found by a large social grouping.

The researchers said it looks as if they even ate the contents of the horse's stomach, as a possible source of rarely available vegetation.

"Back then it was really difficult to get access to good plant resources, and salad leaves and edible vegetables weren't available all year round," he explained.

"We know from accounts of people who live in environments which are intensely seasonal that you can get nutrients out of the partially digested stomach contents of animals.

"We can't eat grass, but if it's been partially digested by a horse then maybe we can."

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