Exceptional Conditions at Israel’s Qesem Cave Preserved 400,000-Year-Old ‘Tool Kit’

“Who led you through the great and terrible wilderness with its seraph serpents and scorpions, a parched land with no water in it, who brought forth water for you from the flinty rock.” Deuteronomy 8:15 (The Israel Bible™)

Recycling old objects is not a new phenomenon in today’s world that is polluted with plastics, electronic parts, and junked vehicles. It seems that prehistorical humans living at the Qesem Cave not far from where Tel Aviv is today “recycled” discarded or broken flint tools some 400,000 years ago to make small, sharp utensils with specific functions.

These tools were then used with great exactitude and accuracy to perform specific tasks involved in the processing of animal products and plants. The cave site was discovered during a road construction project almost two decades ago. It has since produced countless insights into life in the region hundreds of thousands of years ago.

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In collaboration with Prof. Cristina Lemorini of the Sapienza University of Rome, the research was led jointly by postdoctoral fellow Dr. Flavia Venditti in collaboration with Profs. Ran Barkai and Avi Gopher – the last three of whom are members of TAU’s department of archeology and ancient Near Eastern cultures. The research was published recently in the Journal of Human Evolution.

In recent years, archeologists working in caves in Spain and North Africa and digs in Israel and Italy have dug up evidence that prehistoric people recycled objects they used in daily life. Just as we recycle materials such as paper and plastic to manufacture new items today, early hominids collected discarded or broken tools made of flint to create new utensils for specific purposes hundreds of thousands of years ago.

A experiment of cutting tubers using a small recycled flint. On the top right is a hand holding the flint the way it was used. Credit to Dr. Flavia Venditti

“Recycling was a way of life for these people,” Barkai said. “It has long been a part of human evolution and culture. Now, for the first time, we are discovering the specific uses of the recycled ‘tool kit’ at Qesem Cave.”

Exceptional conditions in the cave allowed for the perfect preservation of the materials, including micro residue on the surface of the flint tools.

“We used microscopic and chemical analyses to discover that these small and sharp recycled tools were specifically produced to process animal resources like meat, hide, fat and bones,” Venditti added. “We also found evidence of plant and tuber processing, which demonstrated that they were also part of the hominids’ diet and subsistence strategies.”

According to the study, signs of use were found on the outer edges of the tiny objects, indicating targeted cutting activities related to the consumption of food – butchery activities and tuber, hide and bone processing. The researchers used two different and independent spectroscopic chemical techniques: Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR) and scanning electron microscopy coupled with energy dispersive X-ray spectroscopy (SEM-EDX).

“The meticulous analysis we conducted allowed us to demonstrate that the small recycled flakes were used in tandem with other types of utensils. They, therefore, constituted a larger, more diversified tool kit in which each tool was designed for specific objectives,” Venditti said.

“The research also demonstrates that the Qesem inhabitants practiced various activities in different parts of the cave: The fireplace and the area surrounding it were eventually a central area of activity devoted to the consumption of the hunted animal and collected vegetal resources, while the so-called ‘shelf area’ was used to process animal and vegetal materials to obtain different by-products,” she continued.

“This research highlights two debated topics in the field of Paleolithic archeology: the meaning of recycling and the functional role of small tools,” Barkai observed. “The data from the unique, well-preserved and investigated Qesem Cave serve to enrich the discussion of these phenomena in the scientific community.”

“Our data shows that lithic recycling at Qesem Cave was not occasional and not provoked by the scarcity of flint,” Venditti concluded. “On the contrary, it was a conscious behavior that allowed early humans to quickly obtain tiny sharp tools to be used in tasks where precision and accuracy were essential.”

The researchers are continuing to investigate prehistoric recycling by applying their analysis to other sites in Africa, Europe, and Asia.