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

Nature Ecology & Evolutionvolume 2pages628633 (2018) | Download Citation


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 19,000 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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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.

Author information


  1. Department of Human Evolution, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig, Germany

    • Željko Režek
    • , Harold L. Dibble
    • , Shannon P. McPherron
    •  & David R. Braun
  2. University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Philadelphia, PA, USA

    • Željko Režek
  3. Department of Anthropology, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA, USA

    • Harold L. Dibble
  4. Institute of Human Origins, School of Human Evolution and Social Change, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ, USA

    • Harold L. Dibble
  5. Department of Anthropology, George Washington University, Washington DC, USA

    • David R. Braun
  6. Centre for Archaeological Science, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Wollongong, Wollongong, Australia

    • Sam C. Lin


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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.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Željko Režek.

Supplementary information

  1. Supplementary Information

  2. Life Sciences Reporting Summary

  3. Supplementary Dataset 1

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

  4. 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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