‘Archaeological Origins’ conference, Musée de l’Homme, Paris (June 2017)

On the 8th and 9th of June 2017, several WTAP members included on the ANR (Agency National de la Recherche, or French National Research Agency) funded project ‘Archaeological Origins: the emergence and evolution of the first cultures‘ met with invited guests in the wonderful Jean Rouch auditorium at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris to present and discuss new research relating to the Lomekwi 3 archaeological discovery.

The international symposium was financed by the ANR and was open to the general public. Attendees enjoyed the chance to hear about key aspects of the work conducted at the Lomekwi 3 site since 2011, in a series of talks peppered with presentations by specially invited speakers that placed the known origins of technology in fuller scientific context. More information about the colloque is available in French here.

On Day 1 of the conference, after a welcome coffee and brief introduction to the meeting and Archaeological Origins project by directors Sonia Harmand and Sandrine Prat, the scientific presentations began with an overview of the history of the WTAP and the discoveries it has made to-date (by WTAP founder Hélène Roche). Against this background, the discovery of Lomekwi 3 and the technological uniqueness of the stone tool assemblage (Sonia Harmand), and the site’s geological and chronostratigraphic context (Craig Feibel) gave the critical evidence on which the site’s evolutionary significance rests. Invited speaker Zeray Alemsaged spoke about his team’s recovery of 3.4 million year old bones with probable stone tool cut-marks at Dikika (Ethiopia), arguing for a fundamental change in how we think about the roots of early hominin tool use.

Delving into more detail, experimental research looking at the production of Lomekwian stone tools using passive hammer and bipolar techniques undertaken by Michel Brenet (who sadly could not be present) was outlined by Hélène Roche. Invited speaker Vincent Mourre then provided a more philosophical aspect to the proceedings, using a fable about six blind men and an elephant as a metaphor for identifying stone tool production methods and techniques. The following two talks examined aspects of production and tool function on the Lomekwi 3 artefact collection using microscopes: the marks created on Lomekwi 3 tools by pounding activities and their comparison with other sites across West Turkana (Adrian Arroyo) and; signatures of microscopic use-wear on the edges of Lomekwian flakes and cores as a result of use (Nicholas Taylor). Invited speaker Tomos Proffitt rounded off the first day of talks with some Primate Archaeology, particularly showcasing the results of his sobering work on capuchin flaking behaviours in Brazil.

Day 2 focused on placing the Lomekwi 3 technology into more detailed environmental and paleontological context. The morning started with an exploration of how tectonic activity has affected the hydrology, form and size of the Lake Turkana watershed over time, and the conditions under which Pliocene and early Pleistocene archaeological sites formed (Xavier Boës). At the site scale, invited speaker Vincent Aright then proffered a masterclass in the topographic techniques used in the field by the WTAP to map, visualise, and correlate the excavated artefacts with geological strata and dateable volcanic ash layers. Subsequently, two talks looked at what faunal remains can tell us about the past environment of the Turkana Basin (Jean-Philip Brugal), and the fossil evidence for early hominins found to date on the western side of the lake (Sandrine Prat).

After lunch, two presentations by Guillaume Daver and invited speaker Blandine Bril examined in more detail several critical issues that link directly the Lomekwi 3 tools with the human ancestors who made them – particularly experimental work reconstructing early hominin anatomy, motor skills, and the actions involved in stone knapping. The conference was wrapped up by two concluding and closing talks – the perspective of the project’s directors Sonia Harmand and Sandrine Prat, and of Rob Foley, who brilliantly summarised both the significance of the discovery and the subsequent field research and lab work undertaken.

WTAP featured in Scientific American

The WTAP team’s research at Lomekwi 3 – dated to 3.3 million-years-old and featuring the world’s oldest known traces of stone tool technology – is featured in the May 2017 edition of Scientific American magazine. The article is written by Kate Wong, who spent 2 weeks with us at our field camp in July 2016 as part of her research into the origins of toolmaking and using, and what it means for understanding the origins of humanity. The cover features an artistic impression of an early hominin knapping Lomekwian tools using the bipolar technique.

If you would like to read Kate’s article featuring our work, you can find Scientific American at all good newstands, or visit this link: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/ancient-stone-tools-force-rethinking-of-human-origins/

The New Origins of Technology

Fifty most influential French people 2016

WTAP co-director Sonia Harmand has been included in Vanity Fair magazine’s 50 most influential French people for the year 2016.

Vanity Fair‘s list includes singers, musicians, actors, writers, artists, musicians, business people, economists, politicians, chefs, and sports personalities. Sonia is one of five scientists included in the list, and is pictured in the field alongside the Chief of the Topanawi laga (river) where the WTAP field camp is located each season.

To see Sonia’s entry (in French) visit: http://www.vanityfair.fr/classement-50-francais#sonia

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Prix La Recherche

On the 30th November 2016, at the Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris, France, Sonia Harmand received – on behalf of all WTAP team members and the numerous other researchers, excavators, and students involved in our work – the La Recherche Prize for archaeology.

La Recherche is a monthly French language magazine reporting recent scientific news and discoveries. The prize was given in recognition of the Lomekwi 3 discovery (Harmand et al 2015), which was featured in the March-April 2016 edition of the magazine.

More information (in French) about the Prix La Recherche is available here: http://www.larecherche.fr/prix-la-recherche-événement/prix-la-recherche-2016-le-palmarès

Click here to read (in French) La Recherche‘s interview with Sonia Harmand: http://www.larecherche.fr/prix-la-recherche-archéologie/«-nous-avons-mis-la-main-sur-quelque-chose-dunique-»

Casts of oldest tools presented to Musée de l’Homme, Paris

During a visit to France by Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta, his Minister of Water Mr M. Wamalwa presented to the Musée de l’Homme (‘Museum of Mankind’) in Paris 4 resin casts of the world’s oldest stone tools from Lomekwi 3, West Turkana, Kenya.

Discovered by the WTAP team in 2011 and the subject of a high-profile publication in Nature in 2015, all original Lomekwi 3 tools remain in Kenya. The casts were presented in a ceremony that included speeches by the Minister of Water and the Director of the Museum, with the Eiffel Tower in the background.


Le Monde front page features Sonia

The front page of the French newspaper Le Monde for January 6th 2016 has featured Sonia. The article, written by journalist Bruno Meyerfield and titled Au Kenya, l’énigme des premiers outils (‘In Kenya, the Enigma of the first tools’), introduces French commuters to Sonia, Sammy and the Lomekwi 3 discovery.

The full article featured in Le Monde can be found here.


WTAP makes the cover of Nature

In May 2015, the WTAP team’s discovery of the World’s oldest stone tools was featured on the front cover of the prestigious scientific journal NatureThe research we published was the result of almost 2 years of research and laboratory analysis involving more than 20 scientists, 15 field excavators, 3 student volunteers, and the support and help of many more people and organisations, without whom the research and publication could never have been completed!

Before our discovery, the oldest known stone tools came from the site of Gona in Ethiopia, and were radiometrically dated to be about 2.6 million-years old. The Gona tools consist of small cobbles that hominins (early human ancestors) knapped by freehand percussion to create sharp-edged flakes. This technology has been found at many sites in the East African Rift Valley (including in West Turkana) and is called the Oldowan industry.

The stone tools discovered at Lomekwi 3 and reported by us in Nature were dated using similar methods, but found to be about 3.3 million-years old – extending the known timespan of tool making 700,000 years back in time! The tools are also very different in size, form, and how they were made; they are much larger and heavier than those typical of the Oldowan, and were made by two different methods: bipolar, and passive hammer knapping. Because it is so distinctive and so much older than the Oldowan, we suggest the name Lomekwian to describe this material.

For now, the discovery of 3.3 million-year-old Lomekwian stone tools opens up many new questions about the timing and processes of human evolution in the Plio-Pleistoene.

Click the following link to access the full article on the Nature website.