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Identifying Earliest Stone Tools Is “Most Important Discovery” in a Half Century — and a Score for ID

David Klinghoffer

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The evolution-related story of the hour is the discovery of stone tools in Kenya predating, by 700,000 years, the previously known earliest such handmade tools. From Live Science:

The oldest handmade stone tools discovered yet predate any known humans and may have been wielded by an as-yet-unknown species, researchers say.

The 3.3-million-year-old stone artifacts are the first direct evidence that early human ancestors may have possessed the mental abilities needed to figure out how to make razor-sharp stone tools. The discovery also rewrites the book on the kind of environmental and evolutionary pressures that drove the emergence of toolmaking.

A team reports in Nature:

Human evolutionary scholars have long supposed that the earliest stone tools were made by the genus Homo and that this technological development was directly linked to climate change and the spread of savannah grasslands. New fieldwork in West Turkana, Kenya, has identified evidence of much earlier hominin technological behaviour. We report the discovery of Lomekwi 3, a 3.3-million-year-old archaeological site where in situ stone artefacts occur in spatiotemporal association with Pliocene hominin fossils in a wooded palaeoenvironment. The Lomekwi 3 knappers, with a developing understanding of stone’s fracture properties, combined core reduction with battering activities. Given the implications of the Lomekwi 3 assemblage for models aiming to converge environmental change, hominin evolution and technological origins, we propose for it the name ‘Lomekwian’, which predates the Oldowan by 700,000 years and marks a new beginning to the known archaeological record.

There are the usual insistences that this rewrites the book of human evolution, as here, noted by Science Daily:

“The whole site’s surprising, it just rewrites the book on a lot of things that we thought were true,” said geologist Chris Lepre of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and Rutgers University, a co-author of the paper who precisely dated the artifacts.

We’re told it’s the “most important discovery” in a half century. From BBC News:

Dr Ignacio de la Torre, from University College London’s Institute of Archaeology, described this as “a game-changing” find.

“It’s the most important discovery in the last 50 years,” he told BBC News.

“It suggests that species like Australopithecus might have been intelligent enough to make stone tools — that they had the cognitive and manipulative abilities to carry tasks like this out.”

Listen, let’s grant them everything they say, until the next time the Book of Origins is rewritten yet again. Here’s the interesting thing. The tools don’t look like much — see here for a gallery of images. If you stubbed your toe on one, wandering the badlands of West Turkana, would you look down in wonder or kick it aside?

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Most likely kick it aside. This is not Paley’s pocket watch we’re talking about. The discrimination that they are tools was made via a design inference, and the media coverage is clear about this — they just don’t call it by that name. From the New York Times story:

Dr. [Erella] Hovers and other scientists not involved in the new research said the dating of the material appears to be solid and the objects are deliberately produced tools, not scraps of rock broken by accident or natural causes.

“Because the sediments in these layers are fine-grained, and a flake found by the authors could be fitted back onto the core from which it had been detached,” Dr. Hovers said, “it is unlikely that the tools accumulated through stream activity or that substantial disturbance of the sediments occurred after the tools had been discarded.”

From the article at Science Daily:

“This is a momentous and well-researched discovery,” said paleoanthropologist Bernard Wood of George Washington University, who was not involved in the study. “I have seen some of these artifacts in the flesh, and I am convinced they were fashioned deliberately.”

I don’t doubt that the “tools” are really tools, nor do I have reason to doubt the age assigned to them. But notice the subjective quality of Bernard Wood’s assurance: He’s seen them “in the flesh,” so you can take his word for it. Erella Hovers finds it “unlikely” that the rocks are the product of natural or random processes, like erosion through “stream activity.”

The tools are recognized as tools because they triggered an inference to intelligence design. The difference between this and ID as practiced by the best-known ID advocates is that theorists like William Dembski apply a rigorous objective set of standard for declaring an object “designed.” Dembski doesn’t expect you’ll be impressed that he’s seen whatever it is “in the flesh.”

So the most significant archeological find pertaining to human origins in fifty years hinges on ID. Again, I am simply taking news reports at face value. As our colleague ENV observed recently, “Many scientists claim intelligent design is not science, until they have to use it. Then they find it very helpful.”

Images via West Turkana Archaeological Project.