Polish archaeologists exploring an ancient gold mine in Sudan in the eastern Sahara Desert struck an entirely different kind of “gold.” Acting on a ru
Polish archaeologists exploring an ancient gold mine in Sudan in the eastern Sahara Desert struck an entirely different kind of “gold.” Acting on a rumor, they found hundreds of stone tools that were produced and used by the extinct hominin species Homo erectus , in an area they would have occupied hundreds of thousands of years ago. The Homo erectus tools were barely buried beneath a layer of earth and sand. Using a technology called optically stimulated luminescence (OSL), the archaeologists definitively dated this layer to approximately 390,000 years in the past. The findings have recently been published in the PLOS ONE journal.
“This means that the layers below are certainly older,” explained Professor Mirosław Masojć from the Institute of Archaeology at the University of Wrocław to PAP. “I believe that they may be over 700,000 years old, and perhaps even a million years old—similar to their counterparts in South Africa.”
Assuming this date is correct, it would make these stone tools the oldest objects ever found in the eastern Sahara region.
Polish archaeologists working at the Stone Age site in Sudan where the Homo Erectus stone tool cache was found in an ancient gold mine. ( Science in Poland )
A Long History of Homo Erectus Toolmaking Revealed
The lust for gold has been motivating explorers for millennia, and it was a modern gold rush that led to the discovery of this remarkable cache of Early Stone Age Homo erectus relics. Seeking easy riches, miners and prospectors have been re-opening ancient gold mines throughout the eastern Sahara .
Apparently, one or more of these prospectors stumbled across the Homo erectus tool treasure trove while searching inside a mine located approximately 44 miles (70 kilometers) east of the Sudanese city of Atbara.
The story of this discovery eventually made its way back to the Polish archaeologists, who had been touring mines in the area looking for just this type of ancient artifact. They were delighted to find that the story about the stone tools was true, and they quickly realized that what they’d unearthed must be very ancient indeed.
Stone Age Homo Erectus two-sided cleavers tools found at the Sudan mine site by Polish archaeologists, which are likely the oldest tools ever found in the eastern Sahara region. ( Science in Poland )
While this bounty of ancient stone tools has revealed the oldest known presence of Homo erectus in the eastern Sahara, similar discoveries in other parts of Eastern Africa can be traced back even further in time.
In 2012 and 2013, scientists found two-sided hand axes and other carefully shaped bone and stone tools in Konso, Ethiopia and near Lake Turkana in Kenya, all of which dated to an astonishing 1.75 million years in the past. While there is no smoking gun evidence to prove conclusively that these tools had been manufactured by Homo erectus , the artifacts in Ethiopia were excavated in a location where fossilized Homo erectus remains have also been unearthed.
At the Kenyan site , tools were found in various sediment layers that spanned a period of nearly one million years (to approximately 800,000 BC). It is hard to imagine that any other hominin species besides Homo erectus would have been living in the area for such an extended period of time, continuing to rely on toolmaking innovations that could be traced back to the very earliest days of their species’ existence.
Given how long Homo erectus walked the Earth, in their African homeland especially, discoveries like these aren’t surprising. This precursor to modern man first appeared on the earth two million years ago and didn’t completely disappear until sometime between 100,000 and 50,000 BC.
To put that in perspective, modern humans ( Homo sapiens ) have only been around for about 200,000 years, or approximately one-tenth of the time that Homo erectus survived before climate change ( the onset of the last Ice Age ) finally led to their extinction.
The wide variety and number of stone tools found at the Sudan gold mine site could potentially indicate that Homo Erectus was trading tools across the region. ( PLOS ONE )
Could Homo Erectus Have Been a Trading Species?
During the explorations, the Polish archaeologists found other tools in the mines, including some large, heavy cutting tools that weigh several pounds or kilograms, and almond-shaped tools with beveled edges that form a pointed tip at the junction. But none of these artifacts are as old as this newly discovered Sudan tool cache.
Intriguingly, the recently found tool collection included two-sided cleavers (called rozłupce in Polish) that are reminiscent of the ancient hand axes or cleavers that were discovered in Ethiopia and Kenya.
Never before, Professor Masojć points out, have stone tools been found in the eastern Sahara that are so old, and so similar in size and shape to those used by Homo erectus groups that resided in the eastern equatorial region of Africa for more than one million years.
It seems that ancient Homo erectus toolmaking methodologies were shared rather broadly across time and space, which offers clues about how the process of cultural diffusion may have functioned among this long-extinct species.
Interestingly, the Polish archaeologists believe the newly discovered site near Atbara was a workshop where tools were manufactured in significant quantities. These tools may have been used locally, but they may also have been created as items for trade, perhaps even long-distance trade .
Archaeologists and ancient historians don’t generally view Homo erectus as a trading species. But this belief may be grounded in faulty assumptions derived from skimpy evidence.
There is much we don’t know about how Homo erectus thought, acted, and interacted. There are many important details about their lives and practices that are destined to remain impenetrable, hidden behind a thick veil sewn by the immense passage of time.
Top image: Reconstruction of the Homo erectus Turkana Boy from the Nariokotome, Kenya site, exhibited in the Neanderthal Museum in Erkrath, Germany. Source: Neanderthal Museum / CC BY-SA 4.0
By Nathan Falde