"Slice and Dice:" TAU team sees Acheulian flints as pre eco-aware butchery

TAU study shows tiny flints found in Revadim were tools repurposed to perform delicate butchery on enormous animals such as elephants.

Tiny flake from Revadim site: reconstruction of hand-grip during use. Credit: Dr. Flavia Venditti and Prof. Ran Barkai (photo credit: DR. FLAVIA VENDITTI AND PROF. RAN BARKAI)
Tiny flake from Revadim site: reconstruction of hand-grip during use. Credit: Dr. Flavia Venditti and Prof. Ran Barkai
Many home cooks struggle when they need to rassle a whole turkey into a roasting pan. Take a mental leap back in our collective human memory to what it must have been like for the cave village’s head chef to be confronted with the carcass of an enormous, freshly downed animal needing immediate butchery.
The Acheulian culture extended over the Levant more than a million years ago during the Lower Paleolithic period (1.4m. to 400,000 years ago). The Acheulian culture, prevalent also in Africa, Europe and Asia, was characterized by the standard production of large impressive stone tools, mainly used in butchering enormous prehistoric animals.
Those precursors of the modern butcher were best known among researchers for their use of bifaces – large cutting tools flaked on both sides such as axes and cleavers, once considered by academia as the hallmark of sophistication.
Times have changed – certainly since then – and in the hallowed halls of archaeological research, the new thought is that tiny, thin, flint tools indicate an elevated eco-consciousness.
The new Tel Aviv University-led study, which was published in Nature’s online journal Scientific Reports on September 10, indicates that these early humans, far from matching our preconceptions of early humans as gruff brutes incapable of fine-motor actions or higher thoughts, were actually far more adept at delicate work and resourcefulness than previously thought.
The international team of researchers led by Dr. Flavia Venditti and Prof. Ran Barkai Department of Archeology and Ancient Near Eastern Cultures, together with colleagues from La Sapienza Rome University, discovered tiny flint flakes in the Lower Paleolithic Late Acheulian site of Revadim in southern Israel. This site has previously yielded various stone assemblages, including dozens of hand axes, as well as animal remains, primarily of elephants.
The new study conducted over a three-year period expertly analyzed about 283 tiny flint items some 300,000-500,000 years old.
“For decades, archeologists did not pay attention to these tiny flakes,” says Barkai. “Emphasis was instead focused on large, elaborate hand axes and other impressive stone tools. But we now have solid evidence proving the vital use of the two-inch flakes.”
Venditti explained: “We were looking for signs of edge damage, striations, polishes and organic residue trapped in depressions in the tiny flint flakes, all to understand what the flakes were used for.”
The microscopic residue shows that not only were the tiny flint specimens purposefully made and that they were not merely cave-floor sweepings left over from making the better-known large implements, but they were actually a deliberate by-product of repurposed artifacts with a preconceived specific function in mind.
“We show here for the first time that the tiny tools were deliberately manufactured from recycled material, and played an important role in the ancient human toolbox and survival strategies,” she said.
The slim flints were required to perform certain delicate tasks, such as tendon separation, meat carving, and the removal of thin connective tissue (periosteum) to access marrow. They were probably used along with the more massive chopping and carving tools, each used according to the butchery need.
“We have an image of ancient humans as bulky, large creatures who attacked elephants with large stone weapons,” Barkai said. “They then gobbled as much of these elephants as they could and went to sleep. In fact, they were much more sophisticated than that.”
The principle of 19th and 20th century design that “form follows function,” attributed to architect Louis Henry Sullivan, suggest that our early human ancestors were already onto the same idea, creating out of their immediate need the right tool for the job, as evidenced by these tiny, early boning and skinning knives – now found in the carving sets of every self-respecting chef. The flints of yore were probably the envy of the Foodie crowd of ancient times.
“The tiny flakes acted as surgical tools created and used for delicate cutting of exact parts of elephants’ as well as other animals’ carcasses to extract every possible calorie,” said Barkai.
In current terms, this could be comparable to the Slow Food trend, whose concept of “tip to tail” cuisine clearly had origins stretching back to prior civilizations.
“Nothing was wasted,” Barkai said. “Discarded stone tools were recycled to produce new tiny cutting implements. This reflects a refined, accurate, thoughtful and environmentally conscious culture. This ecological awareness allowed ancient humans to thrive for thousands of years.”