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A surge in obsidian exploitation more than 1.2 million years ago at Simbiro III (Melka Kunture, Upper Awash, Ethiopia)

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Abstract

Pleistocene archaeology records the changing behaviour and capacities of early hominins. These behavioural changes, for example, to stone tools, are commonly linked to environmental constraints. It has been argued that, in earlier times, multiple activities of everyday life were all uniformly conducted at the same spot. The separation of focused activities across different localities, which indicates a degree of planning, according to this mindset characterizes later hominins since only 500,000 years ago. Simbiro III level C, in the upper Awash valley of Ethiopia, allows us to test this assumption in its assemblage of stone tools made only with obsidian, dated to more than 1.2 million years (Myr) old. Here we first reconstruct the palaeoenvironment, showing that the landscape was seasonally flooded. Following the deposition of an accumulation of obsidian cobbles by a meandering river, hominins began to exploit these in new ways, producing large tools with sharp cutting edges. We show through statistical analysis that this was a focused activity, that very standardized handaxes were produced and that this was a stone-tool workshop. We argue that at Simbiro III, hominins were doing much more than simply reacting to environmental changes; they were taking advantage of new opportunities, and developing new techniques and new skills according to them.

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Fig. 1: The Simbiro III site.
Fig. 2: The extensive accumulations of obsidian artefacts in level C.
Fig. 3: Density plots with the length of the whole artefacts from level C and from other assemblages from Melka Kunture14,55.
Fig. 4: Handaxes from level C, with the shaping and retouching sequences.
Fig. 5: Scatter plot of geometric morphometry analysis (CVA results) of the handaxes of layer C and other Acheulean assemblages.

Data availability

The lithic and faunal collections from the MS of Simbiro are kept in the repository of the National Museum of Ethiopia in Addis Ababa and are under the responsibility of the Authority of Research and Conservation for the Cultural Heritage of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism of Ethiopia. Source data are provided with this paper.

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Acknowledgements

Fieldwork in 2015–2019 was funded by grants of Sapienza University (Grandi Scavi di Ateneo grant nos. C26S15ZHET and SA116154E374B49C) and of Ministero degli Affari Esteri e della Cooperazione Internazionale (grant nos. ARC-001149 and ARC-001666), awarded to M.M. Fieldwork in 2019 was funded by a grant from the PALARQ Foundation, awarded to J.P. and M.M. E.M.-Q. is funded by a Post-Doc Xunta de Galicia grant (no. ED481D-2022/023) and A.S.D. in 2020 by a I-Portunus grant. In 2021, G.B. received a DAAD grant no. 57552336. We are grateful to J. Chavaillon’s relatives for the archive documents. The Ethiopian Authority for Research and Conservation of Cultural Heritage (ARCCH) granted permits for fieldwork and laboratory analysis while the Oromia Region facilitated the research in many ways. We are grateful to A. Cropley for useful discussion on convergent thinking and the generation of novelty.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Contributions

M.M. coordinated the research. D.B. and R.B. did the phytolith analysis and researched the paleo vegetation. H.B. and G.B. did the stable isotopes analysis. D.G. determined the faunal remains. R.T.M. investigated the geology and geomorphology. E.M.-Q., J.P. and S.R.J. did the archaeological analysis. L.P. researched the volcanology. A.S.D. assembled and filed the collections. All authors discussed the paper and participated to the extension of the final manuscript, which was written by M.M. and E.M.-Q.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Margherita Mussi.

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Nature Ecology & Evolution thanks Marie-Helene Moncel, Michael Petraglia, Ralf Vogelsang and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Extended data

Extended Data Fig. 1 Location map.

Simbiro III and sites in the Garba and Gombore gullies, within the Melka Kunture cluster of archaeological sites.

Extended Data Fig. 2

General views of the Monumental Section at Simbiro III.

Extended Data Fig. 3 The MS and the Tuka Meja Formation.

The MS, on the right, which belongs to the Melka Formation, and the Tuka Meja Formation, on the left, with the dated 40Ar/39Ar sample at the top of the sedimentary sequence.

Extended Data Fig. 4 Orthophoto and schematic cross-section of the MS.

1: tuff; 2: pyroclastic density current deposits (PDC) in the floodplain; 3: channel and point bar deposits; 4: channel-fill deposits with mud chips; 5: crevasse splay deposits; 6: crevasse splay deposits with lapilli; 7: conglomeratic lag deposits with lithic artefacts; 8: channel/crevasse splay deposits with obsidian artefacts; 9: paleosol; 10: unconformity; A, B, C, D, E: archaeological levels.

Extended Data Fig. 5 The Pelorovis oldowayensis discovered in 1973.

a) braincase with complete right horncore; b) posterior view, and details of the occiput and cranial basis.

Extended Data Fig. 6

Level C: maps of the excavations and density of remains per square meter.

Extended Data Fig. 7 Obsidian handaxes and core.

Obsidian handaxes (1-3) and core (4) with cortical remains typically found on non-abraded cobbles and pebbles.

Extended Data Table 1 The raw materials recorded in some of the main Melka Kunture sites56
Extended Data Table 2 The main technological types recorded in the assemblage of level C
Extended Data Table 3 Sites with specialized knapping activity57,58

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

A. History of studies, Figs. A1–A6. B. Paleoenvironmental data (fauna, phytoliths, stable isotopes), Tables B1–B3 and Figs. B1–B13. C. The archaeological record Figs. C1–C18 and Tables C1 and C2 and refs. 1–49.

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Source data

Source Data Fig. 5

Morphometric data of the handaxes.

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Mussi, M., Mendez-Quintas, E., Barboni, D. et al. A surge in obsidian exploitation more than 1.2 million years ago at Simbiro III (Melka Kunture, Upper Awash, Ethiopia). Nat Ecol Evol (2023). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-022-01970-1

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