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Early Humans Crafted Stone Spheroids 1.4 Million Years Ago

Stone spheroids hint at the astonishing craftsmanship and cognitive abilities of early humans
Stone spheroids hint at the astonishing craftsmanship and cognitive abilities of early humans. Credit: Linda De Volder / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Roughly 1.4 million years ago, our distant human ancestors in the Middle East created stone spheroids with a unique purpose, according to a recent study. This discovery reveals that early humans, such as Homo erectus, had a desire to make these stones perfectly round. This marks the earliest evidence we have of such careful planning.

These intentionally round stones might have had some advantages over naturally shaped ones found in nature. Antoine Muller, an archaeologist from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the lead researcher of the study suggests that these specially crafted stones might have offered some practical benefits.

He further said, “Their tendency to become more spherical as they are made suggests a preference for symmetry and an appreciation of geometry.”

Discovery of stone spheroids

Archaeologists have discovered hundreds of these stone spheroids in various parts of the world, including Africa, Asia, and Europe. These peculiar objects are typically crafted from materials like limestone or sandstone.

They come in a range of sizes, with the smallest being just an inch wide—about the size of a walnut—while most measure between three to four inches in diameter, similar to an orange.

These spherical stones have been found primarily at sites where ancient people made tools from stone. Some experts believe that these spheroids served as essential “hammerstones.”

In this role, they may have been used to pound sharp-edged flakes off other stones or to work on stones known as “cores” from which flakes had been removed. These findings shed light on the diverse functions these stone spheroids served in the daily lives of our ancestors.

History of stone spheroids

The history of these stone spheroids is quite remarkable, spanning up to nearly two million years. They were present throughout the entire era of crafting tools from stone, and some have even been uncovered at more recent sites from the Neolithic period and beyond, dating back only a few thousand years.

A recent study, published in the journal Royal Society Open Science, sheds light on this intriguing history.

Archaeologist Antoine Muller and his team examined 150 limestone spheroids that were excavated at the Ubeidiya archaeological site in northern Israel. These stones date back to around 1.4 million years ago, a time when Homo erectus was the predominant hominin species.

Through a thorough mathematical analysis, the researchers concluded that the spherical shape of these spheroids, ranging from rough polyhedrons to nearly perfect spheres, was not accidental. Instead, it was a deliberate result of a process that involved various stages of crafting.

Muller explained, “We argue that this spherical shape was something they aimed to produce.” He further said, “The ones that were more ‘finished’ were more spherical, suggesting that this was one attribute they were aiming for.”

Symmetry in Acheulean bifaces

Prior studies had observed symmetry in Acheulean bifaces, a type of stone tool that dates back as far as 1.7 million years ago. This symmetry was believed to be the earliest evidence of ancient humans intentionally creating geometrically shaped and symmetrical stone tools.

However, the recent discovery of the spheroids suggests these stone spheres may have served a similar purpose and possibly had other functions as well.

“If symmetry was desired by knappers of Acheulean handaxes, which are symmetrical in three axes, then spheroids, symmetrical in all directions, also [fulfill] this need,” the researchers proposed.

Antoine Muller, the lead researcher, suggests this study hints at the idea that early hominins such as Homo erectus and the earlier Homo habilis may have possessed greater cognitive abilities than previously thought.

He explained, “Our findings suggest that the people who made these spheroids could envisage something as abstract as a sphere and impose that conception in reality by shaping a stone.” He further said, “That likely takes a great deal of forethought and manual dexterity, speaking to their remarkable cognitive and [skillful] abilities.”

Alternative perspective on spheroids

Bruce Hardy, a paleoanthropologist from Kenyon College in Ohio who was not part of this research, offers an alternative perspective on these spheroids. He suggests these spherical stones may have served a still unknown practical purpose that could explain their distinctive shape.

“One long-standing idea is that these were hammerstones used to knock flakes off a core,” he said. “And if you just keep doing that while rotating the hammerstone around, you’re going to end up with something approximating a sphere.”

While Hardy acknowledges that mathematical analysis in the recent study demonstrates the spheroids became more spherical, he remains cautious about interpreting this as definitive evidence that early hominins deliberately shaped them.

He believes that early humans were certainly capable of such planned craftsmanship but suggests that more evidence is needed to confirm this specific interpretation. “I think they’re capable of it,” he says, “but I don’t know that this analysis really shows that this is what they’re doing.”

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