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Groundbreaking ‘Butcher Site’ Puts Crafted Weaponry Into Question

Photo Credit: TW Plummer / Homa Peninsula Paleontology Project /
Photo Credit: TW Plummer / Homa Peninsula Paleontology Project /

Researchers are constantly making new discoveries about humanity’s past as they work tirelessly to excavate archaeological finds all over the world. Recently, a team working in Kenya uncovered a site that answered numerous questions about one of our relatives, Paranthropus. Although not a direct ancestor of Homo sapiens, these ancient cousins may have also known how to make stone tools and use them to butcher one of their food sources, hippopotamuses.

Oldowan tools

It was once thought that the creation of Oldowan tools was accomplished by Homo habilis. This theory fell apart, however, when tools were found that pre-dated the youngest of this species. Hobo habilis may have adopted this technology, but they certainly weren’t the original creators. Researchers believe it’s most likely that the tools were created by one of the Australopithecus species, since they had the large brain size to do so.

Oldowan tools arranged against a black background
Examples of Oldowan tools from the Nyayanga
site (Photo Credit: T.W. Plummer / J.S. Oliver /
E. M. Finestone / Homa Peninsula Paleoanthropology Project)

These tools, made of rock, withstood the test of time. It is very plausible that wooden implements were also used, but those would have broken down over the millennia. To make Oldowan tools, stones were chipped to make either cutters, choppers, or scrapers which helped human ancestors perform many tasks: eating, food production, construction, and working with animal hides.

Discovery in Nyayanga

These tools changed everything for human ancestors as they allowed for the consumption of foods that they physically couldn’t eat before. Involved in the discovery, Rick Potts said, “With these tools you can crush better than an elephant’s molar can and cut better than a lion’s canine can (…) [it] was like suddenly evolving a brand-new set of teeth outside your body, and it opened up a new variety of foods on the African savannah to our ancestors.”

Aerial image of Lake Turkana and the surrounding area.
Satellite image of Lake Turkana, with Lomekwi, one of the important Kenyan archaeological sites, located on the western bank. (Photo Credit: NASA / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Although it is still nearly impossible to tell who created the first Oldowan tools, the discovery at the Nyayanga archaeological site certainly helps clear things up. Located on the Homa Peninsula in western Kenya, the site contained 330 stone tools that were roughly dated to 2.9 million years ago – although they could be anywhere between 2.6 and three million years old.

Raising new questions

While this discovery alone is monumental, as the tools are some of the oldest ever found, what’s even more incredible is that there were no Homo fossils anywhere nearby. Instead, the team found two molars that once belonged to a Paranthropus located among the tools. While an Australopithecine, and therefore part of the larger human family tree, Paranthropus is not considered to be a direct human ancestor.

Team members excavating the Nyayanga site
Nyayanga site being excavated in July 2016 (Photo Credit: J.S. Oliver / Homa Peninsula Paleoanthropology Project)

Thomas Plummer was the lead anthropologist involved in the research and subsequent publication in the Science journal. Of the discovery he said, “The association of these Nyayanga tools with Paranthropus may reopen the case as to who made the oldest Oldowan tools. Perhaps not only Homo, but other kinds of hominins were processing food with Oldowan technology.”

A butcher shop

This could mean that Paranthropus was the original maker of the tools, or it could mean that many species were making them at the same time. Incredibly, alongside the teeth and the stone implements, researchers also found the remains of three hippos. After analysis, it became clear that at least some Oldowan tools had been used on two of the animals.

Line drawing of a hippo skeleton.
Drawing of a hippopotamus skeleton like was discovered in Kenya. (Photo Credit: Richard Lydekker/ Wikimedia Commons/ Public Domain)

There were a variety of different cut marks on their bones, a deep one on a rib fragment, and four shorter ones on a shin bone. As well as the hippos, there were also the remains of an antelope whose bones had clearly been crushed to access the edible marrow. Overall the site contained a total of 1,776 animal bones, leading the team to believe that they discovered a “prehistoric butcher shop.”


Aside from the evidence on the bones, the team also conducted an analysis of the wear patterns present on 30 of the tools to see just how they were used. They realized that they weren’t just designed to butcher animals, but also to process plants – likely using them to peel away the tough outer layer of roots. It’s not clear exactly how Paranthropus prepared this food for consumption as their use of fire was still two million years away, but they very well could have pounded it down to make it easier to eat.

Model of 'paranthropus boisei.'
Reconstructed model of what the early hominin Paranthropus boisei is believed to look like. (Photo Credit: Schöning / ullstein bild / Getty Images)

Some researchers such as Mohamed Sahnouni, a paleolithic archaeologist in Spain, have already spoken out to disagree with Paranthropus being the creator of Oldowan tools. He said that it seems unlikely as their anatomy was already well designed to eat coarse foods, so they wouldn’t need tools designed to break down food of this kind

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Despite this, he is still excited about the finding, as it reveals that animals were being butchered by human ancestors 600,000 years before researchers once thought. Although this study doesn’t conclusively answer the question of who really created Oldowan tools, it certainly provides a wealth of new information on how humanity’s ancient cousins lived, butchered, and ate.

Rosemary Giles

Rosemary Giles is a history content writer with Hive Media. She received both her bachelor of arts degree in history, and her master of arts degree in history from Western University. Her research focused on military, environmental, and Canadian history with a specific focus on the Second World War. As a student, she worked in a variety of research positions, including as an archivist. She also worked as a teaching assistant in the History Department.

Since completing her degrees, she has decided to take a step back from academia to focus her career on writing and sharing history in a more accessible way. With a passion for historical learning and historical education, her writing interests include social history, and war history, especially researching obscure facts about the Second World War. In her spare time, Rosemary enjoys spending time with her partner, her cats, and her horse, or sitting down to read a good book.