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3.3-million-year-old stone tools from Lomekwi 3, West Turkana, Kenya

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Abstract

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.

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Figure 1: Geographic location of the LOM3 site.
Figure 2: LOM3 lithological context.
Figure 3: Chronostratigraphic framework for LOM3.
Figure 4: Photographs of selected LOM3 artefacts.
Figure 5: Photographs of selected LOM3 artefacts.

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Acknowledgements

We thank the office of the President of Kenya, the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, the National Council for Science and Technology (NCST/RCD/12B/012/25) and the National Museums of Kenya for permission to conduct research. Funding was provided by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs (N°681/DGM/ATT/RECH, N°986/DGM/DPR/PRG), the French National Research Agency (ANR-12-CULT-0006), the Fondation Fyssen, the National Geographic Society (Expeditions Council #EC0569-12), the Rutgers University Research Council and Center for Human Evolutionary Studies, and INTM Indigo Group France. We thank the Turkana Basin Institute and Total Kenya Limited for logistical support and the GeoEye Foundation for satellite imagery; the Turkana communities from Nariokotome, Kokiselei and Katiko for field assistance, and the 2011-12 WTAP team, S. Kahinju, P. Egolan, L. P. Martin, D. Massika, B. K. Mulwa S. M. Musyoka, A. Mutisiya, J. Mwambua, F. M. Wambua, M. Terrade, A. Weiss, R. Benitez, S. Feibel. M. Leakey and F. Spoor supplied information on hominin fossils, and I. de la Torre and E. Hovers provided lithic assemblage data. We are very grateful to A. Brooks, I. de la Torre, J. Shea, R. Klein and M. Leakey for comments on earlier drafts. We also thank the Zoller & Fröhlich GmbH company, Ch. Fröhlich and M. Reinköster, Autodesk and Faro (T. O’Mahoney, K. Almeida Warren and T. Gichunge) for technical support with scanning and J. P. Chirey for photographic assistance.

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Authors and Affiliations

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Contributions

S.H. and J.E.L. directed field research and co-wrote the overall paper. C.S.F., C.J.L., A.L. and X.B. recorded sedimentological and stratigraphic data, conducted geological mapping, and wrote sections of the paper. C.S.F. interpreted tephra data. C.J.L. interpreted paleomagnetic data. S.P., J.-Ph.B., S.L., C.K. and L.L. conducted paleontological survey. S.P., J.-Ph.B. and L.L. analysed and interpreted fossil material. L.L. directed scanning of artefacts. S.P. laser scanned artefacts and excavation surfaces, and wrote sections of the paper. R.L.Q. interpreted isotopic data and wrote sections of the paper. C.S.F., C.J.L., R.L.Q., R.A.M., J.D.W. and D.V.K. analysed geological samples. G.D. developed protocols for tool replication experiments and wrote sections of the paper. S.H., H.R., N.T., M.B., S.C., S.L. and C.K. conducted archaeological survey and excavation. S.H., H.R., A.A., N.T. and M.B. analysed and interpreted lithic material and wrote sections of the paper. M.B. performed lithic replication experiments. S.C. provided spatial data. S.L. discovered the LOM3 site.

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Correspondence to Sonia Harmand or Jason E. Lewis.

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Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Figure 1 Map and schematic section at LOM3.

a, Map showing xy coordinates of artefacts and fossils recovered in situ and from the surface at the site in 2011 and 2012. b, Schematic section showing vertical distribution of in situ artefacts and those located in the slope deposit at the excavation. Key is the same for both figures.

Extended Data Figure 2 Geology of the LOM3 site.

a, Stratigraphic sections around LOM3 (locations in b), showing relationship of site to marker tuffs and lithofacies. Sections aligned relative to top of flat-pebble conglomerate unit. b, GPS coordinates of stratigraphic sections (WGS84 datum).

Extended Data Figure 3 Paleomagnetic data.

a, Representative vector end-point plots of natural remanent magnetism thermal demagnetization data from specimen Toroto Tuff, tt2, wt59, wt50, wt45, wt36. Open and closed symbols represent the vertical and horizontal projections, respectively, in bedding coordinates. TD treatment steps: NRM, 100°, 150°, 200°, 250°, 300°, 350°, 400°, 450°, 475°, 500°, 525°, 550°, 575°, 600°, 625°, 650°, 660°, 670°, 675°, 680°, 690°, and 700°. V/M = 10 denotes a 10 cc cubic specimen. b, Equal-area projections for Section 1 (left) and Section 2 (right) of the lower Lomekwi Member (see Fig. 3a). Open and closed symbols are projected onto the upper and lower hemisphere, respectively, in bedding coordinates. Plotted are ChRM sample-mean directions for accepted samples only (that is, those with MAD values <15°). Overall mean directions were calculated after inverting the northerly (normal) directions to common southerly (reverse) polarity.

Extended Data Figure 4 Paleoenvironmental reconstruction through pedogenic carbonate stable carbon isotopic analysis.

a, LOM3 paleosol δ13CVPDB values (‰) ± 1σ, number of analyses, fraction woody canopy cover (ƒwc) and percent C4 biomass contribution to soil CO2. Asterisk denotes nodules sampled at the LOM3 site, 2011-2b (see Extended Data Fig. 2a). b, Schematic box and whisker plots of ƒwc from the LOM3 (3.3 Ma, this study) and Gona33,54,55 (Busidima Fm, 2.5–2.7 Ma) lithic sites and other East African hominin localities from 3.2–3.4 Ma34,55,56,57,58,59,60,61 relative to UNESCO structural categories of African vegetation32,52. Grey box denotes 25th and 75th percentiles (interquartile range); whiskers represent observations within upper and lower fences (1.5 × interquartile range); black line shows mean value; grey line equals median value; black circles indicate mild outliers. c, Summary statistics of paleosol δ13CVPDB values and ƒwc from LOM3 (3.3 Ma) and Gona33,54,55 (2.5–2.7 Ma) lithic sites and other East African hominin localities from 3.2–3.4 Ma54,55,56,57,58,59,60,61. LOM3 δ13CVPDB values are significantly lower than those from the Busidima Formation at Gona (t-test, P < 0.001) and have a mean value that indicate 18% more woody canopy cover. When compared to paleosol δ13CVPDB values of the Koobi Fora, Nachukui, Chemeron, and Hadar formations from 3.2 to 3.4 Ma, LOM3 δ13CVPDB values are not significantly different (one-way ANOVA, P > 0.05).

Extended Data Figure 5 Gradual uncovering of core I16-3 from in situ pliocene sediment.

a, Photograph showing square I16 at the beginning of excavation. Yellow line indicates north wall of square (July 16, 2011, 12.14 p.m.). b, Close-up of square I16 indicating complete burial of as-yet-uncovered artefact I16-3 (12.14 p.m.). c, Square I16 after excavation had begun and artefact I16-3 was initially exposed (2:11 p.m.). d, Close-up of artefact I16-3 after being initially exposed (2.12 p.m.). e, Close-up of artefact I16-3 after further excavation (3.02 p.m.). f, Square I16 after further excavation (5.32 p.m.). g, Close-up of artefact I16-3 after further excavation (5.34 p.m.). h, Close-up of artefact I16-3 after being completely freed from the surrounding matrix and flipped over for inspection (5.36 p.m.). i, Close-up of impression from under artefact I16-3 (5.47 p.m.).

Extended Data Figure 6 Photos of selected LOM3 artefacts compared with similar experimental cores.

Together with the technological analysis of the archaeological material, our replication experiments suggest that the LOM3 knappers were using passive hammer technique, in which the core, usually held in both hands, is struck against a stationary object that serves as the percussor34 (also referred to as on-anvil, block on block or sur percuteur dormant35) and/or bipolar technique, in which the core is placed on an anvil and struck with a hammerstone34. a, Unifacial passive hammer cores. Left is archaeological piece LOM3-2012 surf 106 (2.04 kg); right is experimental piece Expe 55 (3.40 kg) produced using the passive hammer technique. Selection of relatively flat blocks with natural obtuse angles. The flake removal process starts from a slighly prominent part of the block (white arrows show the direction of removals). The removals tend to be invasive. The flaked surface forms a semi-abrupt angle with the platform surface. A slight rotation of the block ensures its semi-peripheral exploitation. b, Unifacial bipolar cores. Left are archaeological pieces LOM3-2012-H18-1 (left, 3.45 kg) and LOM3-2012 surf 64 (right, 2.58 kg); right are experimental pieces Expe 39 (left, 4.20 kg) and Expe 24 (right, 2.23 kg) produced using the bipolar technique. The block selected are thicker and more quadrangular in shape with natural angles ≈90°. Flakes are removed from a single secant platform (white arrows show the direction of removals). The flaked surface forms an abrupt angle with the other faces of the block. Impacts due to the contrecoups (white dots) are visible on the opposite edge from the platform.

Extended Data Figure 7 Photographs of selected LOM3 artefacts.

a, Passive element/anvil (LOM3-2012 surf 50,15 kg). Heavy sub-rectangular block displaying flat faces and therefore a natural morphology and weight which would enable stability. b, Hammerstone showing isolated impact points (LOM3-2012 surf 33, 3.09 kg) and c, Hammerstone showing isolated impact points (LOM3-2012 surf 54, 1.63 kg), associated with a flake-like fracture on one end.

Extended Data Table 1 Numerical data on the LOM3 lithic assemblage (2011, 2012).
Extended Data Table 2 Comparison of whole flake and core dimensions between LOM3, early Oldowan sites and chimpanzee stone tool sites
Extended Data Table 3 Comparison of anvils and percussors dimensions found at LOM3 site with anvils and percussors used by non-human primates in Bossou (wild chimpanzees, Pan troglodytes verus from ref. 41)

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Harmand, S., Lewis, J., Feibel, C. et al. 3.3-million-year-old stone tools from Lomekwi 3, West Turkana, Kenya. Nature 521, 310–315 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature14464

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