The Olorgesailie People
If one wanted to study the general abilities of Homo erectus then a visit to Olorgesailie in Kenya would be a worthy place to start. Around sixty-five kilometres southeast of Nairobi, within the Great Rift Valley, sits a large field of Acheulean tools and butchered animal bones. Discovered in 1919, it wasn’t until 1943 that it was excavated by Louis and Mary Leakey. Studies indicated that the site was about 1.2 million years old and fell out of use around 200,000 years ago when the lake it sat beside began to dry up. Fossils of extinct species of hippo, elephant, zebra, giraffe, and baboon and others were found, perhaps butchered using the hand axes. The site had been preserved under fallen volcanic ash (which provided the site dates). Further, while ninety-nine percent of the tools were made from local lavas, quartz and obsidian were also used from two distinct and opposite mountain sites, 16-40 km distant, respectively.
The Acheulean hand axes are associated with animal butchering. The site also seems to have been arranged where ‘axes’ were made in one area, blunt instruments sharpened in another, animals butchered in other areas, and so on. However, on further study and replication of manufacture the tools were shown to be poor at cutting, chopping, scraping, or tasks such tools would seemed to have been made for. It may be that while the stone tools were inadequate, they were good enough for what they were needed for, at that time and place, for a million years.
However, and intriguingly, the bodies of the tool-makers seemed to be absent. The makers were assumed to be Homo erectus, since no other known hominid contender existed at this time. It wasn’t until 2003, after sixty years of excavations, that small skull fragments were found. They were assessed to be that of Homo erectus and dated to between 900,000-970,000 years old. So where did the makers live, eat, sleep, hunt, and die? The skull fragments were found about 1.5 kilometres away from the tool site near the highland area of Mt. Olorgesailie, so perhaps the tool-makers’ living areas were away from the lake and in the safety of higher ground, caves, and/or rock shelters.
It has to be repeated that this went on for a million years. A million years. Think about that. Modern humans have been around for less than 200,000 years, yet here was a ‘primitive’ hominid species making the same-type tools over and over for five times longer than our existence. Can our modern minds even comprehend such a notion of deep time and comprehend our society producing the same bit of technology for a millions years? Our technology barely lasts a decade before the next invention takes hold. So what on Earth were the Olorgesailie up to? How can Homo erectus abilities be studied, here? Below are some ideas to ponder.
There is no conclusive evidence that Homo erectus could speak, save for speculation upon other studied Homo erectus’ skulls that their brains contained a Broca’s area, related to speech. As with such claims, they are hotly contested. However, to maintain and use such a site as Olorgesailie over so long, there must have been some form of communication, especially verbal forms, no matter how unsophisticated, for tool-making and group bonding/hunting purposes.
Homo erectus may have travelled the world, survived tough and varied environments, made tools, and used fire, but they essentially had the brain capacity of a modern infant. Making stone tools could have enthralled them and challenged their spatial awareness and perceptions just as puzzles and building blocks do to today’s child. Making stone tools enhanced learning and motor-skill coordination. In any case, the skills existed to create the hand axes and bifacial tools in the first place.
A lake (now dried up) and a stone tradition purposefully set up by the lake and abandoned when the lake dried up: what is the connection? The main use seems to be to hunt and butcher the animals by the lakeshore. But were the stones also used as fishing utensils to skim the water and bring prey up and to the shore? Were the stones used to scare away predators by throwing them at the beasts or even other hominid competitors? Making tools may have been a rite of passage to bond and to enter manhood and join the hunt, passed down through countless generations.
Some of the tools weren’t fully functional, but they were pretty to look at. Creating stone tools for creation sake could be seen as the beginnings of aesthetics and art. Were some of the tools a show of aesthetics over function? How valued were the tools? Were they owned or shared? Were they reused or recklessly abandoned? The amount of tools found and the superfluous nature in some of their manufacture (e.g. size, stone type, etc) may make a case for the burgeoning of artistic thought.
While the Acheulean stone-tool tradition has been found in Africa and Europe, were these specific stone types also found outside of the Olorgesailie area? Have any ‘foreign’ artefacts turned up that could have been the result of trade? Did the people come together around the scenic lake to trade commodities (stones, food, knowledge, etc) through the stones they collected and fashion into a type of stone currency? Olorgesailie Acheulean ‘intellectual property’ may have been passed on to other groups who then spread it beyond Africa.
Were the stone tools used as primitive earth-moving tools, digging in the dirt and marshy land for food or resources? Is there any evidence for Homo erectus-influenced landscaping? While territorial markers may not have been a function, surely coming across so many hand axes and bi-facial tools 900,000 years ago would have marked it out as ‘private property’ and thus an area of importance by the lake.
All these may be fanciful, biased notions, and based upon modern thinking. Many of these scenarios are much too early in time to have happened or have been thought about by Homo erectus, but maybe there are proto-concepts we cannot now conceive of. The Olorgesailie people and area are determined to hold on to their secrets. Excavations are still on-going and hopefully, one day some answers will be found and new shed light on the life and times of Homo erectus.
1. Bryson, Bill. 2003. A Short History of Nearly Everything. Black Swan: London.
2. Olorgesailie –Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Olorgesailie
3. Olorgesailie: Life and Times of the Handaxe Makers: http://humanorigins.si.edu/research/east-african-research/olorgesailie