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New clues about the everyday activities of the first humans

Research provides new data on the use of large tools, such as heavy-duty scrapers, documented onwards from 2.5 million years ago, while many of their uses are still unknown.

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osIt is recognized that more than 2.5 million years ago in Africa, hominins were already using large-sized stone tools, such as heavy-duty scrapers, but we still do not know the variety of uses they had. For this reason, a team from the IPHES (Institut Català de Paleoecologia Humana i Evolució Social) has carried out a comprehensive historical and archeological review of these tools, and has experimented to reproduce those found at Orce (Granada), with an age of over 1.3 million years.

Heavy-duty scrapers are tools with a convex and very abrupt extremity displaying traces of use, such as crush marks or irregular retouch. These large tools could have been used for butchery or other kinds of daily tasks that included materials such as wood, tendons or skins. This is explained in the article recently published in the International Journal Comptes Rendus Palevol: “Defining heavy-duty scrapers: their appearance and significance in ancient stone toolkits” by IPHES members Deborah Barsky, Josep Maria Vergès, Stefania Titton, Miquel Guardiola and Robert Sala, who have carried out the research in collaboration with Isidro Toro-Moyano of the Archaeological and Ethnological Museum of Granada.

In the 1960’s and 1970’s, heavy-duty scrapers were initially interpreted as intentionally manufactured tools. They were subsequently considered as summarily knapped cores. However, these tools have stigmas that show evidence of their subsequent use. The publication offers a global vision that helps to understand the functional meaning of heavy-duty scrapers, as well as important new archeological and experimental results on percussion technologies during the Lower and Middle Pleistocene, that is, between 2.5 and 100,000 years ago.

This work is the result of a broader research project, underway since 2010, exploring the meaning of the heavy-duty tools that are ubiquitous in ancient stone toolkits. The project specifically addresses questions relating to what these heavy percussion tools can tell us about the types of activities that ancient humans were performing in their daily lives.

The authors provide a wide-ranging review of the documentation available for heavy-duty scrapers, addressing the much-needed renovation of its definitions in accordance to their chrono-geographical representation in major archeological sites. They demonstrate that heavy-duty scraper morphologies appeared at the very onset of hominin toolmaking; during the Oldowan cultural period, which began in Africa some 2.5 million years ago.

Heavy-duty scrapers documented in Orce (Granada, Spain) – Foto: IPHES

The tool is characterized by its flat surface, oriented perpendicularly to an abrupt and convex edge displaying removals, steep retouch and crush marks.

Tools matching these special features are recognized in Oldowan sites in Africa, for example, in Bed I of Olduvai Gorge (Tanzania, 1.8 Ma) and Fejej FJ-1a (Ethiopia, 1.9 Ma), and also in Eurasian sites like, Dmanisi (1.8 Ma, Georgia) Barranco León and Fuente Nueva 3 (Spain, 1.4 and 1.2 Ma, respectively), amongst others.

Results show that the heavy-duty scraper morphotype persisted into the Developed Oldowan (ca. 1.6-1.5 Ma), for example at Koobi Fora, Kenya, and at Ubeidiya, Israel, and that it was later replaced, during the Large Flake Acheulian phase (1.5 – 0.8 Ma), by Massive Scrapers made on Large Flakes (examples: Lower Bed II at Olduvai Gorge and Gesher Benot Ya’akov, in Israel). Finally, during the Late Acheulian, smaller tools made on cores and regular flakes (French: Rabots) present similar characteristics that blend progressively into the group of end-scrapers.

Experimental archeology permitted the IPHES team to test the possible or probable uses of heavy-duty scrapers to perform different kinds of percussive activities; including working wood, bone, meat and tendons. This allows them to propose that heavy-duty scrapers could have served to work soft materials on stone anvils.


Deborah Barsky, Josep-Maria Vergès, StefaniaTitton, Miquel Guardiola, Robert Sala Ramos, Isidro Toro Moyano, 2018. “Defining heavy-duty scrapers: their appearance and significance in ancient stone toolkits”. Comptes Rendus Palevol 17 (3), 201-219.