Social Sciences Spain , Burgos, Friday, May 10 of 2013, 19:36

North African hominid butchers 1.8 million years ago

Evidence of stone tool use for extracting animal flesh was found at the El-Kherba (Aïn Hanech) site in Algeria

Cristina G. Pedraz/ DiCYT Researchers at the Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre la Evolución Humana (CENIEH), a research center on human evolution in Burgos (Spain), have found evidence of stone tool use to remove animal flesh from bones (like current butchers), in the oldest paleontological site in Northern Africa, the El-Kherba (Aïn Hanech) in Algeria, from about 1.8 million years. This work was published in the Journal of Human Evolution and it is part of a larger paleoanthropoligical research project: Aïn Hanech Paleoanthropological Project.

Mohamed Sahnouni, researcher at CENIEH and first author of the paper, explained us that this project studies early human settlements in Northern Africa and the adaptation of these hominids. El-Kherba is a key site in this regard, since it has rich sedimentary basin deposits from the middle Miocene (about 14 million years ago) to the Pleistocene and the Holocene (11,700 years ago).

The CENIEH researchers, collaborating in the project hand in hand with the Universitat Rovira i Virgili (Tarragona, Spain) and Algerian co-workers, have found some extraordinary deposits of fossil mammals, “African savanna fauna made up of elephants, rhinos, large and smalls bovids, carnivores and some other animals are evidence of the presence of water”. The team has analyzed changes in these bones by hominids to determine if at that time these animals were consumed and findings have being interesting.

“We have studied the anatomical composition of these fossils and taxonomic composition of fauna; it seems that the accumulation of these bones was caused by hominids coming to this place, where their raw material could find water, to build stone tools with very effective edges to cut meat (made of limestone and flint: cutting boulders, polyhedrons, spheroids, lithic flakes and several stone fragments), a place with water that attracts animals,” Sahnouni explains.

Testing Bones and Tools

After analyzing these bone fossil surfaces with a microscope, they have found obvious cut marks proving that these stone tools were used to remove animal flesh; those would be the earliest evidence in Northern Africa. Through microscopic studies of traces on the stone tools (primarily flakes), researchers have also found evidence of their use to cut meat, “which is very unusual, since to date there is not any other site with evidence of both aspects, bones and tools; this is the reason why this study is very important”, the scientist adds.

Therefore, “it seems that hominids at this place, about 1.8 million years ago, were able to get animal flesh.
Thus, "it seems that hominids of this place, of nearly 1.8 million years ago, were able to have access to animal meat". The study shows these hominids acted as butchers: they performed disembowelments, dislocations, meat removing and fractures in large mammals to obtain their nutritious marrow. Moreover, with this evidence in Northern Africa, the paper concludes that “Africa as a whole was a place for adaptation and development of early hominid behavior”, not only Eastern Africa.

Besides food and livelihood of hominids, the Hanech Aïn Paleoanthropological Project establishes three research areas: the chronology of the earliest human settlement in this part of Africa, the paleoenvironment reconstruction of this site (of about two million years) and the study of stone technology used by these hominids as well as some aspects of intelligence or adaptation to the environment.




Sahnouni, M., Rosell, J., van der Made, J., Vergès, J. M., Ollé, A., Kandi, N., ... & Medig, M. (2013). The first evidence of cut marks and usewear traces from the Plio-Pleistocene locality of El-Kherba (Ain Hanech), Algeria: implications for early hominin subsistence activities circa 1.8 Ma. Journal of human evolution, 64(2), 137-150.