Sharp Survivorman

on April 11, 2009

ScienceNOW: “Oldest Stone Blades Uncovered” Stone blades from more than 500,000 years ago: the work of an alleged human ancestor or someone playing Survivorman?

University of Connecticut–Storrs paleoanthropologists Cara Roure Johnson and Sally McBrearty discovered the blades at five sites in Kenya, two of which date to more than 500,000 years old. If true, that would make some of the collected blades the oldest on record.

But for students of hominid evolution, the discovery is quite puzzling. ScienceNOW reporter Ann Gibbons explains:

This discovery is a win–win for creationists.

Not long ago, researchers thought that blades were so hard to make that they had to be the handiwork of modern humans, who had evolved the mental wherewithal to systematically strike a cobble in the right way to produce blades and not just crude stone flakes. First, they were thought to be a hallmark of the late Stone Age, which began 40,000 years ago. Later, blades were thought to have emerged in the Middle Stone Age, which began about 200,000 years ago when modern humans arose in Africa and invented a new industry of more sophisticated stone tools. But this view has been challenged in recent years as researchers discovered blades that dated to 380,000 years in the Middle East and to almost 300,000 years ago in Europe, where Neandert[h]als may have made them.

And now more than 500,000 years ago—but who could have made such sophisticated blades “so long ago”? The researchers can only guess, pointing to discoveries of Homo heidelbergensis and Homo rhodesiensis bones nearby. (Creationists consider H. heidelbergensis one of several now-extinct variant of modern humans, while H. rhodesiensis, based on only one fossil, likely fits into another [fully human] Homo species.) More tellingly, Gibbons writes, “Regardless of the identity of the toolmakers, other researchers say that the discovery of blades this early suggests that these toolmakers were capable of more sophisticated behavior than previously thought” (emphasis added).

This discovery is a win–win for creationists. First, every time human discoveries are pushed back farther and farther in the evolutionary timeline, it raises questions about how reliable that timeline is. Such blades were once considered 40,000 years old, and now they’ve aged to more than half a million years. Such wide-ranging evidence of modern human behavior shows the flimsiness of the evolutionary timeline.

Second, we applaud the ongoing rehabilitation of alleged human ancestors, who—though portrayed as doltish apemen—clearly exhibited highly intelligent behavior. (We have covered such behavior in the case of Neanderthals especially.) But even the link between archaeological discoveries and human intelligence is questionable. Let’s say your next-door neighbor were stranded in Africa far from any cities or hope of rescue. In his efforts to survive, he would craft simple tools from wood and stone nearby, perhaps faring even worse than these alleged human ancestors at making stone tools (due to lack of experience). If a hundred years later, anthropologists found the tool remains, would they conclude the toolmaker to be a modern human or some ancient species? That is why the connection between tools and intelligence only works one way: sophisticated tools reveal intelligence, but simple tools do not imply stupidity.

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