Pushing back the boundary of the stone age

With archaeological research into early humans tending to focus on the early Middle Palaeolithic, around 200,000 years ago, it comes as a surprise to learn that Israeli researchers have found evidence of typically human behaviour as early as half a million years before that.

Stone tools from Gesher Benot Ya'aqov in present day northern Israel

I’m afraid that I do not have access to the full paper, as the publisher of Science refuses to recognise me as a journalist*, and I am unwilling to fork out for a personal subscription to a periodical that would go largely unread. As a result I am no longer able to report on the detail of new results published in the world’s second-most prestigious science journal.

Working at the Gesher Benot Ya’aqov site, which is located along the Dead Sea rift in the southern Hula Valley of northern Israel, Hebrew University archaeologist Naama Goren-Inbar and others discovered a pattern of specific areas in which various human activities were carried out. Goren-Inbar and her colleagues say that their findings indicate a living space which required a typically human level of organisation and communication between group members.

In terms of genetics, the human species has been traced back to “Mitochondrial Eve”: the name given to the matrilineal most recent common ancestor of all living humans. This abstract concept (we are talking here about surviving DNA, not a real and unique woman) featured in Alice Roberts‘ television documentary on human origins, and her recent public lecture in London. Based on geneticist and phylogeographer Stephen Oppenheimer‘s genetic tree of human DNA in Africa, Mitochondrial Eve ‘lived’ around 190,000 years ago.

The new Israeli study describes an Acheulian (an early stone tools culture) layer at Gesher Benot Ya’aqov, which the researchers have dated to 750,000 years ago. The evidence consists of stone tools, animal bones and a collection of botanical remains. Two distinct activity areas are seen in the excavated layer. The first is characterised by flint tool manufacture, while the second is based around the processing of basalt and limestone in a wood-fired furnace.

As well as making extensive use of stone tools such as hand axes, scrapers, awls and pitted anvils, it appears that the inhabitants of Gesher Benot Ya’aqov were partial to eating fish.

* Citing US Securities Exchange Act restrictions, the publisher of the journal Science no longer recognises me as a journalist. This is an entirely specious argument. The more likely reason for my expulsion from the media workers database of the American Association for the Advancement of Science is the organisation’s low opinion of new media, and in particular its contempt for blogging. The expulsion notice referred specifically to my website, and my paid-for contributions to the Guardian‘s Comment is Free pseudo-blog.

As a result of the prejudice displayed by the AAAS and its EurekAlert! news service, many freelance journalists have found themselves left out in the cold when it comes to embargoed science news from North America. Contrast this with the European science news agency AlphaGalileo, and the world’s most prestigious journal, Nature, both of which embrace new media, and treat journalists with due respect.