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Europe’s Oldest Bone Tools Found in UK

The bone tools in question were found along with the remains of a horse that people cut for their flesh.

Pieces of stone in the piles around the animal show that at least eight people made large flint knives for the job.

Researchers also say that there are other people nearby — perhaps young or old members of a community — and that this is evidence that sheds light on the social structure of our former relatives.

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Anywhere else in Britain, a valuable and ancient archaeological site like Boxgrove is unknown. During excavations, archaeologists unearthed hundreds of stone tools and animal bones that date back 500,000 years.

Horse butchery site excavated in 1990. A: UCL Institute of Archaeology

These instruments were made by Homo heidelbergensis, a possible ancestor of modern humans and Neanderthals.

Researchers also found a tibia belonging to one of these people. This bone is the oldest known human bone in Britain.

“The findings were an extremely rare opportunity to study an area that remains after being fully collected to process the body of a dead horse on the edge of coastal swamps, just as it was left behind by an extinct population,” says project leader Dr Matthew Pope.

“Incredibly, we were able to get as close as we could to witnessing the minute-by-minute movement and behavior of a single group of seemingly tight-lying first-timers. These people were a community of young people and the elderly who worked together collaboratingly and quite socially.”

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This is a group of more than 100 pieces of flint left over from making a single tool. The hand axe itself has not been found. However, the shape of the tool was revealed by shedding the remaining cavity in the re-combined waste material. A: UCL Institute of Archaeology

Researchers were able to re-create the type of sharp stone tool made from chips left in the field. However, these stone tools could not be found, as people may have taken these tools with them.

In the inter-tidal swamp that is likely to be on Britain’s southern coastline, there was a cliff nearby that began to erode and produced good rocks for carving stone tools. Alluvium from the sea also formed a grazing ground here.

“Grassland means herbivore animals, while herbivores mean food for humans,” Says Dr Pope.

Dr Pope adds that it is still unclear how the horse came to this environment.

The pile of stones that emerged when one of these people kneels and creates a hand axe. The trace of the person’s index can be seen in the alluvium. A: UCL Institute of Archaeology

“Horses are highly social animals, and it makes sense to assume that they are part of a herd. He came ashore to lick either fresh water or seaweed or salt. For whatever reason, this horse, away from the herd, died there.”

“He was probably hunted to death, but we have no evidence of that. It was also right next to a tidal stream. The tide was quite low, so it was possible for people to go around. But shortly afterwards, a high wave came and began to cover the area with thin, dusty silt and clay. When people walked away from here, everything stayed as it was.”

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This horse was more than just a meal. Analysis of bones by Simon Parfitt and Dr Silvia Bello found that several bones were used as tools.

Simon Parfitt said, “These are some of the oldest non-stone tools found in the archaeological records of human evolution. These tools should have been necessary for the production of quality flint blades found on the wider Boxgrove estate,” he says.

“The finding provides evidence that early human cultures understood the properties of different organic materials and how tools could be made to improve the production of other instruments,” Dr. Bello says.

Bello says the findings provide further evidence that early human populations in Boxgrove were cognitively, socially and culturally complex.

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Researchers believe other members of the group, numbering between 30 and 40, are nearby. They might have joined the hunting party to cut off the horse carcass.

This may explain how the horse’s body was completely dismembered: boxgrove people had even smashed bones to reach the bone marrow and internal fat.

Far from being an event for a handful of people at the hunting party, Dr Pope says butchery transactions can be quite a social activity for these older people.

The detailed findings were published in a book called “The Horse Butchery Site”.

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