Feb 26, 2021

Ancient stone chopping tools were used for over two million years have been found in archaeological sites all over the Old World, but those who dug them up didn’t know exactly what they were used for. Using advanced scientific methods, researchers from Tel Aviv University (TAU) and in Rome who were working at the prehistoric site of Revadim east of Ashdod and 40 kilometers southeast of Tel Aviv found that stone tools of the type were used to break open the bones of animals such as fallow deer, gazelles and possibly even cows and then to extract the nutritious bone marrow. 


The study, just published in the prestigious PLoS (Public Library of Science) One journal under the title “An integrated study discloses chopping tools use from Late-Acheulean-Era Revadim,” was conducted by Dr. Flavia Venditti of the University of Tübingen and Prof. Ran Barkai and Dr. Aviad Agam of TAU’s Nadler Institute of Archaeology, in collaboration with the Laboratory of Technological and Functional Analyses of Prehistoric Artefacts (Sapienza, University of Rome) and other researchers there. 

Prof. Ran Barkai producing a replica of a chopping tool in order to be used in experimental marrow extraction.

Unraveling the function of the flint tools known as “chopping tools’” by using advanced research methods, they realized that the bones they found had to be broken neatly in two with great skill and precision, as shattering the bone into pieces would damage the precious bone marrow. They examined use-wear traces on 53 chopping tools, as well as organic residues found on some of the tools. They also made and used replicas of the tools, with methods of experimental archaeology. The researchers concluded that tools of this type, found at numerous sites in Africa, Europe and Asia, were used by prehistoric humans at Revadim to neatly break open bones of medium-size animals such as fallow deer, gazelles and possibly also cattle to extract the nutritious high-calorie bone marrow.

“For years we have been studying stone tools from prehistoric sites in Israel, in order to understand their functions,” said Barkai. “One important source of tools is Revadim, an open-air site (as opposed to a cave) dating back to 500,000 to 300,000 years before our time and rich with remarkably well-preserved findings.  Over the years, we have discovered that Revadim was a highly favored site, reinhabited over and over again by humans, most probably of the late Homo Erectus species.  Bones of many types of game, including elephants, cattle, deer, gazelles and others were found at the site.”


The researchers add that the prehistoric inhabitants of Revadim developed an effective multipurpose toolkit – not unlike the toolkits of today’s tradesmen. After discovering the functions of some stone tools found there, the team focused on chopping tools – flint pebbles with one flaked, sharp and massive edge. “The chopping tool was invented in Africa about 2.6 million years ago, and then it migrated with humans wherever they went over the next two million years,” he continued. “arge quantities of these tools have been found at almost every prehistoric site throughout the Old World – in Africa, Europe, the Middle East and even China – evidence for their great importance. But until now, they had never been subjected to methodical lab testing to find out what they were actually used for.”


Many specimens were found to exhibit substantial damage to their edges as a result of chopping hard materials, and some also showed residues of animal bones preserved for almost half a million years.  Going on to experimental archaeology, they collected flint pebbles from the vicinity of Revadim, manufactured replicas of prehistoric chopping tools and used them to break open bones of dead medium-size animals. Comparisons between the use-wear traces and organic residues on the replicated tools and those on the prehistoric originals significantly substantiated the study’s conclusions.


“Early humans broke animal bones in two to extract bone marrow,” concluded Barkai. “The chopping tool that we examined in this study was evidently outstandingly popular because it was easy to make and highly effective for this purpose. This is apparently the reason for its enormous distribution over such a long period of time. The present study has expanded our knowledge of the toolkit of early humans – one more step toward understanding their way of life, tracking their migrations and unraveling the secrets of human evolution.”