Two million years of flaking stone and the evolutionary efficiency of stone tool technology


Temporal variability in flaking stone has been used as one of the currencies for hominin behavioural and biological evolution. This variability is usually traced through changes in artefact forms and techniques of production, resulting overall in unilineal and normative models of hominin adaptation. Here, we focus on the fundamental purpose of flaking stone—the production of a sharp working edge—and model this behaviour over evolutionary time to reassess the evolutionary efficiency of stone tool technology. Using more than 18,000 flakes from 81 assemblages spanning two million years, we show that greater production of sharp edges was followed by increased variability in this behaviour. We propose that a diachronic increase in this variability was related to a higher intensity of interrelations between different behaviours involving the use and management of stone resources that gave fitness advantages in particular environmental contexts. The long-term trends identified in this study inform us that the evolutionary efficiency of stone tool technology was not inherently in advanced tool forms and production techniques, but emerged within the contingencies of hominin interaction with local environments.

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Fig. 1: Flaking stone by hominins over evolutionary time.
Fig. 2: Production of sharp edges by hominins over evolutionary time.
Fig. 3: Stone management by Neanderthals in southwest France from 95 ka until 45 ka.

Change history

  • 31 January 2019

    A technical error led to the Supplementary files not being updated when the correction notice was published on 25 January 2018; these files have now been updated.

  • 25 January 2019

    In the version of this Article originally published, the authors mistakenly included duplicate entries in the flake datasets for the new Pech de l’Azé IV and Warwasi collections, resulting in minor errors in the statistical analysis. The authors have now repeated this analysis with the correct flake datasets. As a result, in the following two sentences, the number of flakes has been changed from 19,000 to 18,000: “Using more than 18,000 flakes from 81 assemblages spanning two million years...” and “We applied a comparative approach...on more that 18,000 complete and unmodified flakes.” In addition, in Figs. 1–3 and Supplementary Fig. 1, some of the data points for the Pech de l’Azé IV and Warwasi collections have moved; the original and corrected figures are below. Supplementary Tables 1 and 2 have been updated to reflect the corrected statistics, and datasets ‘Flake_data’ and ‘Summary_data’ have been replaced with the corrected data files. Furthermore, the data availability statement has been updated with the text “Open access to these data and the R code generated for this study is provided at”. The authors would like to thank L. Premo at Washington State University for finding the duplicate entries in the published flake dataset.


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The collection of archaeological data was supported by the National Science Foundation (BCS-1219455, 0602021 and OISE-1358178), The Leakey Foundation, the Alexander Humboldt Foundation, the University of Pennsylvania Research Foundation, the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, the Department of Human Evolution at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, the Service Régional de l’Archéologie (Bordeaux, France) and the Conseil Général (Dordogne, France). We thank the National Museums of Kenya, Heritage Western Cape (South Africa), Musée National de Préhistoire in Les Eyzies and Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris for research permission to analyse these archaeological materials. We also thank B. A. Wood of George Washington University for comments on the first draft of the manuscript.

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All authors contributed archaeological data. Ž.R. conducted the statistical analysis of the archaeological data and wrote the paper, with contributions from all authors.

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Correspondence to Željko Režek.

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Supplementary Information

Life Sciences Reporting Summary

Supplementary Dataset 1

Data on length, width, thickness, platform depth, exterior platform angle, and industrial affiliation of measured flakes

Supplementary Dataset 2

Summary of flake data per archaeological assemblage, including the cortex ratio and the ratio between modified and unmodified artefacts

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Režek, Ž., Dibble, H.L., McPherron, S.P. et al. Two million years of flaking stone and the evolutionary efficiency of stone tool technology. Nat Ecol Evol 2, 628–633 (2018).

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