Evidence for stone-tool-assisted consumption of animal tissues before 3.39 million years ago at Dikika, Ethiopia

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Date published:
(12 August 2010)

The oldest direct evidence of stone tool manufacture comes from Gona (Ethiopia) and dates to between 2.6 and 2.5 million years (Myr) ago1. At the nearby Bouri site several cut-marked bones also show stone tool use approximately 2.5Myr ago2. Here we report stone-tool-inflicted marks on bones found during recent survey work in Dikika, Ethiopia, a research area close to Gona and Bouri. On the basis of low-power microscopic and environmental scanning electron microscope observations, these bones show unambiguous stone-tool cut marks for flesh removal and percussion marks for marrow access. The bones derive from the Sidi Hakoma Member of the Hadar Formation. Established 40Ar–39Ar dates on the tuffs that bracket this member constrain the finds to between 3.42 and 3.24Myr ago, and stratigraphic scaling between these units and other geological evidence indicate that they are older than 3.39Myr ago. Our discovery extends by approximately 800,000 years the antiquity of stone tools and of stone-tool-assisted consumption of ungulates by hominins; furthermore, this behaviour can now be attributed to Australopithecus afarensis.

Figures at a glance

  1. Figure 1: Geographic and stratigraphic location of DIK-55.

    a, Map of a portion of the Dikika Research Project area showing DIK-55 (modified bone locality), DIK-1 and DIK-2 (hominin localities), and relevant faults and sections. b, Detailed map showing the position of the DIK-55 and surrounding palaeontological localities. c, A composite stratigraphic column of the Andedo drainage and surrounding Simbledere region showing the position of the modified bones at DIK-55. Stratigraphic scaling of marker units (SH-o, SH-g, SH-lm and B-g) are based on 40Ar–39Ar ages of the Sidi Hakoma Tuff (SHT) and TT-4 recalibrated to reflect an updated age of the Fish Canyon Sanidine standard28. Stratigraphic scaling between these two radiometrically dated tuffs provides a sedimentation rate of 427.8mMyr−1, which is applied to the ages of the Basal gastropodite (B-g), Sidi Hakoma limestone (SH-lm), DIK-1 excavation, Sidi Hakoma gastropodite (SH-g) and Sidi Hakoma ostracodite (SH-o). These stratigraphically scaled ages are consistent with a correlation to the position of the Kada Damoumou Basalt ~3.3Myr ago and the lowermost boundary of the Mammoth palaeomagnetic subchron within the Gauss chron (Mam_b.; chron 2An.2r at 3.319Myr ago29; both are recorded elsewhere in the Hadar Formation28, 30 ).

  2. Figure 2: Stone-tool-inflicted marks on DIK55-2, a rib of a probably size 4 or larger ungulate.

    a, The exterior surface of DIK-55-2, and the location of each of the surface marks. The rib is oriented such that the rib head (broken off) would be to the left. Dashed rule, 4cm. b, Marks A1 and A2 (high-confidence stone-tool cut marks) under low-power optical magnification; the yellow rectangle demarcates c. Scale bar, 5mm. c, ESEM image showing microstriations indicative of cutting with a stone tool. Scale bar, 100μm. d, Mark B (high-confidence stone-tool-inflicted mark) under low-power optical magnification, indicative of a cutting and scraping action or percussion; the yellow rectangle demarcates e. Scale bar, 5mm. e, ESEM image showing microstriations indicative of stone tool action. Scale bar, 500μm. be, The direction of the rib head is indicated by the black arrows. See Supplementary Information for the details of mark C.

  3. Figure 3: Stone-tool-inflicted marks on DIK-55-3, a femur shaft of a size 2 young bovid.

    a, The exterior surface of DIK-55-3. The bone is oriented such that the proximal end is to the right. Dashed rule, 4cm. The location of each of the surface marks is shown in close-up in bi. b, Mark A (high-confidence stone-tool-inflicted mark) under low-power optical magnification shows clear microstriations indicative of cutting with a stone tool; the yellow rectangle shows the position of c. c, ESEM image further documenting microstriations. d, Mark G1 leading into the large area of clustered damage designated mark D; D shows both stone-tool percussion damage (shown in yellow rectangle that demarcates f) and recurrent cutting by a stone tool. e, Continuation of mark D showing high-confidence stone-tool-inflicted marks. f, ESEM image showing microstriations indicative of stone tool action. g, ESEM image of the area indicated by the rectangle in h of mark E showing microstriations indicative of stone tool action. c, f, g, Scale bars, 100 μm. h, Mark E (high-confidence stone-tool-inflicted mark) under low-power optical magnification possibly produced by a slicing motion from the distal end. i, Marks H1 and H2 under low-power magnification, both high-confidence stone-tool-inflicted marks; H1 is probably a percussion mark and H2 is probably a cut mark. bi, The direction of the femur head is indicated by the black arrows on the scale, which is 5mm. See Supplementary Information for marks B, C, F and I, not shown here.

Author information


  1. Department of Human Evolution, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, DeutscherPlatz 6, Leipzig 04103, Germany

    • Shannon P. McPherron
  2. Department of Anthropology, California Academy of Sciences, 55 Concourse Drive, San Francisco, California 94118, USA

    • Zeresenay Alemseged
  3. Institute of Human Origins, School of Human Evolution and Social Change, PO Box 872402, Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona 85287-2402, USA

    • Curtis W. Marean
  4. Department of Geology, University of South Florida, 4202 E Fowler Ave, SCA 528, Tampa, Florida 33620, USA

    • Jonathan G. Wynn
  5. University of Texas at Austin, Department of Anthropology, 1 University Station C3200, Austin, Texas 78712, USA

    • Denné Reed
  6. Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, UPR 2147, 44 Rue de l'Amiral Mouchez, Paris 75014, France

    • Denis Geraads
  7. Department of Anthropology, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia 30602, USA

    • René Bobe
  8. School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona 85287-6106, USA

    • Hamdallah A. Béarat


S.P.M. is the project archaeologist. Z.A. is the head of the project and palaeoanthropologist. C.W.M. described and analysed the fossil bone specimens and surface modifications. J.G.W. is the project geologist. Fauna were analysed by Z.A., D.R. (micromammals and GIS), D.G. (biostratigraphy), R.B. (palaeoenvironments). H.A.B. conducted the ESEM/SEI/EDX study. All authors contributed to the writing of this paper.

Competing financial interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

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Supplementary information

PDF files

  1. Supplementary Information (11.9M)

    This file contains Supplementary Information comprising: 1 Survey Methodology; 2 Faunal list; 3 Stratigraphic and palaeoenvironmental context; 4 Surface modifications on the fossil specimens; Supplementary Figures 1- 23 with legends; Supplementary Tables 1- 3 and References.


  1. Report this comment #12717

    patrick dempsey said:

    The site – a near shore, lacustrine setting which also produced abundant crocodile teeth. The crocodile is known to swallow stones to 1% of body weight. In order to keep that 1% body weight ratio the crocodile must continuously swallow and regurgitate stones throughout life history . The croc's stomach is perfectly capable of digesting bones but it is also reasonable to expect the crocodile would, on occasion, regurgitate a few bones along with the reject stones. the croc's stomach is known to churn vigorously during digestion and one would reasonably expect those bones in the energetic croc stomach to become cut marked and abraded in the exact way the investigators found the published bones. see my previous comments on this in Nature 461, 341, 17 Sept. 2009.

  2. Report this comment #12770

    Marc Verhaegen said:

    Congratulations with this paper. I have no idea whether Patrick Dempsey's comment (2010-08-12) is correct, but hominids (relatives of chimps, humans and gorillas) using hard tools to butcher lakeshore carcasses c 3.4 Ma are not unexpected. Chimpanzees hunt sometimes, and gorillas in zoos like meat. All hominids and pongids at least occasionally make and use tools (last common ancestor c 15 Ma), and "great apes" evolved thick enamel at least c 17 Ma (e.g. Heliopithecus, found in coastal sediments, possibly mangroves). Capuchin monkeys have thick enamel and use hard tools (shells or stones) to open mangrove oysters or nuts. Sea otters, who have thick-enameled bunodont cheekteeth like australopiths (Alan Walker 1981 "Diet and teeth - dietary hypotheses and human evolution" Phil Trans R Soc Lond B 292:57-64), use stones to open hard-shelled seafoods (google "aquarboreal").

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Additional data

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Editor's summary

First evidence of tool use

Until now, the earliest evidence for tool use by our ancestors or their relatives was from two sites in Ethiopia's Awash Valley. Stone tools manufactured about 2.5 million years ago were found at Gona, and cut-marked bones of about the same age were found in the Middle Awash. The suspicion that hominins used tools even earlier has now been borne out by the discovery at nearby Dikika of two bones, one from a large ungulate, with cut and percussion marks consistent with the use of stone tools to remove flesh and extract bone marrow. The marked bones are about 3.4 million years old and are probably the work of Australopithecus afarensis, the only hominin known to have been in the Awash Valley at this time, and famously the species to which the iconic Lucy (from Hadar, Ethiopia) and the juvenile Selam (or DIK-1-1, from Dikika) belong.

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