Blombos Cave, Western Cape, South Africa

Anthropology: The Oldest Artifacts in the World as Evidence of Early Human Cognitive Ability

Lomekwi Stone Tools

 Age: 3.3 million years
Artifact type:  Handmade stone tools
Origin:  West Turkana, Kenya

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Lomekwi Excavation Site West Turkana, Kenya, Credit:

An article by Harmand et al, 3.3-million-year-old stone tools from Lomekwi 3, West Turkana, Kenya (downloadable article) explains the importance of this anthropological finding. The abstract reads as follows for those of you who don’t want to read the whole article.

Human evolutionary scholars have long supposed that the earliest stone tools were made by the genus Homo and that this technological development was directly linked to climate change and the spread of savannah grasslands. New fieldwork in West Turkana, Kenya, has identified evidence of much earlier hominin technological behaviour. We report the discovery of Lomekwi 3, a 3.3-million-year-old archaeological site where in situ stone artefacts occur in spatiotemporal association with Pliocene hominin fossils in a wooded palaeoenvironment. The Lomekwi 3 knappers, with a developing understanding of stone’s fracture properties, combined core reduction with battering activities. Given the implications of the Lomekwi 3 assemblage for models aiming to converge environmental change, hominin evolution and technological origins, we propose for it the name ‘Lomekwian’, which predates the Oldowan by 700,000 years and marks a new beginning to the known archaeological record.

Why is this discovery so important to us other than the fact that it is probably the oldest known artifact to date? This discovery tells us that our human ancestors had the mental ability to craft tools even before the Homo genus were born.

Oldowan Stone Tools

 Age: 2.6 million years
 Artifact type:  Handmade stone tools, weapon
 Origin:  Gona, Ethiopia

Picture of Oldowan Stone Tools found in Gona, Ethiopia once believed to be the oldest tools on Earth
Picture of Oldowan Stone Tools found in Gona, Ethiopia once believed to be the oldest tools on Earth Credit: Credit: Peter A. Bostrom UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA–BERKELEY, DEPT. OF ANTHROPOLOGY COLLECTION

I guess it makes sense that the oldest artifacts are going to be tools. The second oldest are the Oldowon Stone tools.

Until the 2015 research paper mentioned above by Harmand et al was published, the Oldowan stone tools found in Gona, Ethiopia were believed to be the oldest tools ever found on earth, dated to be about 2.6 million years old. It’s not known who created the tools from Gona since there are no fossils near the artifacts. It’s thought that the Australopithecus garhi were the ones who used the tools.

Acheulean Hand Axes

 Age: 1.76 million years
 Artifact type:  Handmade stone tools i.e. axes
 Origin:  Africa, Asia, and Europe; Oldest in Kenya

Picture of Acheulean Hand Axes used in the Early Stone age or Middle Palaeolithic period.
Credit: Oldest Acheulean Handaxe from Kokiselei, Kenya.P.-J. Texier
Example of hand thrown

Yet another tool. However, this one’s a hand axe! These Hand Axes were first made by our ancient ancestors, the Homo Erectus about 1.76 million years ago, as part of the Acheulean tradition toolkit of the Early Stone Age, and they were used at the beginning of the Middle Palaeolithic (Middle Stone Age) period, about 300,000–200,000. Most archeologists and scholars think the handaxe was used as a cutting tool, while some think it was used as a throwing weapon.

…And that’s when the pointed front end of the hand ax finally began to make some sense. It would spin around and tend to bury itself in the skin (or snag a roll of skin pushed up by the forward motion of the hand ax landing). This would not only transfer much of the hand ax’s forward momentum to the animal — but it would yank on the just-incised skin by

Not a bad theory. The shape of the stone would make sense that it was trying to tear flesh or inflict damage. It looks cool nonetheless.

Blombos Cave Paint Studio

 Age: 100,000 years
 Artifact type:  Paint making tools made of shells and assorted bones
 Origin:  Blombos Cave, Western Cape, South Africa

Beautiful picture of Blombos Cave Paint studio off the Western Cape of South Africa.
Blombos Cave, Western Cape, South Africa

Isn’t this place just remarkable? A beautiful little cave tucked away off the cape of South Africa. This was an important discovery because it suggested the “modern behavior” of our Middle Stone Age ancestors. The cave was thought to have been a paint-making studio! This was discovered in 2008 and was one of the most recent finds. The paint making studio consisting of two toolkits dates back to 100,000 years ago. Scientists discovered traces of a red, paint-like mixture stored in two abalone shells.

Paint making studio pulpit for mixing paint found in the Blombos Cave.
Credit: Live Science

I always wondered what you could find at the southern tip of Africa! An archaeologist’s dream come true.

Skhul Cave Beads

 Age: 100,000 years
 Artifact type:  Shell beads jewelry
 Origin:  Es Skhul Cave, Haifa, Israel

Middle Paleolithic Shell Beads in Israel and Algeria
Credit: (Image: Marian Vanhaeren/Francesco d’Errico

Middle Paleolithic shell beads in Israel and Algeria by Marian Vanhaeran et al. supports the hypothesis that anatomically modern humans in Africa, very early in time, had an aptitude for symbolic thinking.

The abstract from the article explains that perforated gastropod shells at the western Asian site of Skhul and the North African site of Oued Djebbana suggest the early use of beads by modern humans in these regions. The remote nature of the site from the seashore and a comparison of the shells to natural shells indicate purposeful selection and transport by humans for symbolic use. Further scientific analysis by chemical and elemental studies show that the sediment matrix adhering to one Nassarius gibbosulus from Skhul indicates that the shell bead comes from a layer containing 10 human fossils and dating to 100,000 to 135,000 years ago, about 25,000 years earlier than the previous evidence for humans using personal decoration.

Interesting to know that concepts of art, decoration, and jewelry go back that far in time and it is an important finding because it helps us get an idea of how far back our human ancestors were able to perceive and desire.

Paleolithic Bone Flutes

 Age: 42,000 – 43,000 years
 Artifact type:  Musical instruments made from bone
 Origin:  Geissenkloesterle Cave, Blaubeuren, Germany

The artifact known as the Divje Babe flute, discovered in Slovenia in 1995, has been claimed as the oldest flute made of cave bear femur is 43100 ± 700 years old

First there were tools and then music! Mankind’s oldest musical instrument and one the oldest artifact is the flute. Ancient flutes made from animal and bird bones during European Upper Paleolithic age have been discovered in the Swabian Alb region of Germany.

Scientists say that the bone flutes found at Geissenkloesterle Cave in Germany are the oldest musical instruments ever found in the world. Using carbon dating, the flutes were found to be between 42,000 – 43,000 years old. The flutes were made from bird bone and mammoth ivory and are from the Aurignacian archaeological culture, part of the the earliest modern humans in Europe. The instruments could have been used for recreation or religious rituals.

These discoveries provide valuable evidence of prehistoric music during the earliest period of modern human presence in Europe. The oldest musical instrument discovered is Divje Babe flute, discovered in Slovenia in 1995, which is cave bear fermur and over 43,000 years old. Some were even made of woolly mammoth ivory!

These archaeological discoveries prove that early humans who occupied Europe had a fairly sophisticated culture, complete with alcohol, adornments, art objects and music that they developed there or even brought with them from Africa when they moved to the new continent 40,000 years ago.

The function of bone-flutes in prehistoric times is debatable, but the large numbers discovered reveal that they had a genetic importance. Suggestions include ritual, ceremonial, shamanic and just regular fun.

“These results are consistent with a hypothesis we made several years ago that the Danube River was a key corridor for the movement of humans and technological innovations into central Europe between 40,000 and 45,000 years ago,” study researcher Nick Conard, of Tübingen University, said in a statement.

“Geißenklösterle is one of several caves in the region that has produced important examples of personal ornaments, figurative art, mythical imagery and musical instruments. The new dates prove the great antiquity of the Aurignacian in Swabia.” The Aurignacian refers to an ancient culture and the associated tools.

These ancient flutes are the earliest record of technological and artistic innovations that are characteristic of the Aurignacian period. It’s interesting to see mankind’s ancient progression into artistic creativity and expression.

Löwenmensch Figurine (Lion-man of the Hohlenstein-Stade)

 Age: 35,000 – 40,000 years old
 Artifact type:  Ivory sculpture
 Origin:  Hohlenstein-Stadel Cave, Swabian Jura, Germany

The Lion Man figurine, discovered in the Stadel Cave, Baden-Wurttemberg, Germany, 40,000 years old.
The Lion Man. Stadel Cave, Baden-Württemberg, Germany, 40,000 years old. The oldest known evidence of religious belief in the world. © Ulmer Museum.

The Lion Man

Known as the oldest known figurative art work in the world and is between 35,000 to 40,000 years old, the Löwenmensch figurine was discovered in 1939 by geologist Otto Völzing at the Hohlenstein-Stadel cave.

At the beginning of the Palaeolithic period, around 40,000 years ago, the area which is the Swabian Jura was part of the landscape inhabited by early, anatomically modern humans (homo sapiens). Survivors of the last Ice Age migrated here. They hunted mammoths, bison, reindeers, wild horses and other prey. There is evidence of them occupying caves through the discovery of the remains of campfires, and from tools, weapons and jewelry made from stone, bone, antlers and ivory. Excavation of Hohlenstein-Stadel within this area led to the discovery of the Lion Man, which is the largest and most remarkable of the ivory figurines. The Lion Man is probably an expression of a mythical creature which is half man/half beast (therianthropic). Parts of a sculpted piece were uncovered in 1939 when excavating the Hohlenstein-Stadel cave. It was later recognized more than 30 years later that the parts made up a figurine. After two more decades, the figurine was restored into the statuesque figure it is today. The delay is in part due to World War II, when efforts were put to a halt.

The sculpture is made up of 300 parts, and has been almost completely restored, revealing much more detail than had previously been possible. This has helped archeologists also realize how it was created and what techniques were used. The Lion Man is a monumental discovery because it shows that early humans were able to interpret things abstractly in a mythical and artistic sense through symbolization.

Venus of Hohle Fels

 Age: 35,000 – 40,000 years
 Artifact type:  Ivory sculpture
 Origin:  Hohle Fels Cave, Schelklingen, Germany

Venus of Hohle Fels figurine is the oldest sculpture depicting a human figure. It is about 35,000 to 40,000 years old.
Credit: H. Jensen, © University of Tübingen
Proximate source:

The Venus of Hohle Fels figurine is the oldest sculpture depicting the human figure. It is the oldest “Venus figurine” and is dated back to about 35,000 – 40,000 years ago. It was discovered in 2008 in the Hohle Fels cave by an archaeological team led by Nicholas J. Conard. The team discovered several other ancient artifacts, including the world’s oldest instrument already mentioned above, the ancient flutes.

There have been may ideas over what the figure represents, with Conard suggesting that it is about “sex, [and] reproduction.” He states that the exaggerated female features of the figurine are “an extremely powerful depiction of the essence of being female.”

This prehistoric art is typical of the feature of female figurines of the prehistoric times such as the Venus of Willendorf. The discovery sheds new light on the origins of Stone Age art, evidence that Aurignacian culture was far more advanced than previously thought. A number of other important artworks were found in the vicinity including he Lion Man of Hohlenstein Stadel as mentioned above. The Venus of Hohle Fels was the highlight of a major exhibition in Stuttgart (2009-2010) entitled Ice Age Art and Culture. See also Ancient Art (2.5 million BCE – 400 CE).

A female figurine from the basal Aurignacian of Hohle Fels Cave in southwestern Germany by Nicholas J. Conrad

Abstract: Despite well over 100 years of research and debate, the origins of art remain contentious1,2,3. In recent years, abstract depictions have been documented at southern African sites dating to ∼75 kyr before present (BP)4,5, and the earliest figurative art, which is often seen as an important proxy for advanced symbolic communication, has been documented in Europe as dating to between 30 and 40 kyr BP2. Here I report the discovery of a female mammoth-ivory figurine in the basal Aurignacian deposit at Hohle Fels Cave in the Swabian Jura of southwestern Germany during excavations in 2008. This figurine was produced at least 35,000 calendar years ago, making it one of the oldest known examples of figurative art. This discovery predates the well-known Venuses from the Gravettian culture by at least 5,000 years and radically changes our views of the context and meaning of the earliest Palaeolithic art.

The Venus figures from the Palaeolithic have been found throughout Europe, but the Hohle Fels is the oldest. It would have been made by Cro-Magnon, the first true humans and shows the ability of artistic symbolism and craftsmanship. It’s quite impressive because it probably would have taken them hours on end to carve considering prehistoric times.

St Cuthbert Gospel

Age: 1,315 years old
Artifact type:  Book
Origin:  Lindisfarne, North East England

St Cuthbert Gospel, the 1315 year old book
The Gospel, buried with St. Cuthbert in 698, was recovered from his grave in 1104. Its beautiful red leather binding is original.
Courtesy of the British Library

Ok for being 1300 or so years old this book is still in pretty good shape! The British Library in London paid about $14 million to purchase Europe’s oldest intact book, known as the St. Cuthbert Gospel from the Jesuits.

I added this one because the book actually still looks like a book. While there are a few older books around the world, they didn’t appear to look like a book you could find at a library like this one. I would think this was about 100 years old, but it is 10 times older!

The book was a copy of the Gospel of St. John, originally produced in northeastern England for Saint Cuthbert. It was placed into his coffin over 1,300 years ago when he died. When Vikings began raiding the northeast coast of England, St. Cuthbert’s monastic community left their place on the island of Lindisfarne and took the coffin with them. The book was preserved once they settled in Durham. The coffin was opened in 1104 when a new shrine was being built for the saint, and the book was discovered and preserved, and then over time passed to the Jesuits. And now the British Library in London.


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