10 Remarkable Discoveries Involving Ancient Tools

Updated on November 4, 2017
Jana Louise Smit profile image

Jana is an amateur archaeologist who examined her first rock at the age of 2. She likes to group ancient discoveries together in fun lists.

Ancient tools come in a great variety and allow unique glimpses in to the skills and jobs of the past.
Ancient tools come in a great variety and allow unique glimpses in to the skills and jobs of the past. | Source

Why Ancient Tools are Valuable

When not making war or running from a predator, the ancients invented instruments to make rope, trade, hunt better or to add another tattoo. By looking at the ingenuity of some of these tools, one can learn a lot about long-gone societies. Far from being boring stone objects, some of what our ancestors created can be surprising, mysterious and sometimes even turn history on its head.

10. Ice Age Rope Tool

The Hohle Fels Cave system in Germany has already delivered several famous artifacts. Among them are flutes and nude female statues. One game-changing tool made its appearance in 2015 when a university team scouted the site for more goodies.

The piece of mammoth ivory, measuring 8 inches (20.4cm) long, came punctured with four holes. Each gap had spiral-type grooves carved on the inside but these were far from an art statement. Instead, archaeologists believe the incisions were a technological trait that helped during the production of rope. In the past, similar tools were filed away as shaft-straighteners, art or unusual musical instruments.

However, the Hohle Fels instrument was immaculately preserved and during an experiment that used local plant fibers, it actually made some string. The tusk was dated to about 40,000 years ago, the same age as the flutes and figurines found at Hohle Fels. How Paleolithic people managed to manufacture rope was a question that had plagued the experts for decades, but this solves the issue.

9. Manicured Men

An archaeologist from Oslo, Lisbeth Skogstrand, started a fiery debate when she focused on a certain time in Scandinavian history. She studied the so-called "unwritten" time, lasting from 1100 B.C. to 400 A.D. and did so by analyzing over 800 artifacts from a vast amount of male graves in Norway and Denmark.

Her main conclusion? That the period's idea of masculinity appeared a little soft by today's standards.

During ancient times, in most cultures being a warrior was the pinnacle of manliness. It was the norm for male burials to brim with shields, weapons and scar-bearing skeletons. The men in the Skogstrand study fell under three categories. The Early Bronze Age (1100-500 B.C.), Early Roman Period (~200 A.D.) and Later Roman Period (200-400 A.D.). During the early Roman time, graves held the expected weaponry but the other two contained men buried with female grave goods. These included grooming tools such as razors and tweezers for facial hair. Manicure items were also found. Scholars remain divided over Skogstrand's suspicion that during the "unwritten" time, the ideal man was a groomed warrior who brushed, tweezed and did his nails.

Clovis Point

A Clovis point dating 11,500 - 9, 000 B.C.
A Clovis point dating 11,500 - 9, 000 B.C. | Source

8. The Gault Site

Conventional teaching once stated that the first North Americans were the Clovis people. In the 1990s, one Clovis location delivered the culture's trademark tapered-oval spear points. This later prompted a team to return in 2002 and investigate the so-called Gault site more thoroughly.

The researchers had no reason to expect a surprise since all anthropologists were taught nobody came before the Clovis. However, a meter below the 13,000-year-old spear points, a historic trove proved the textbooks wrong. The cache included human teeth, animal bones and 90 stone tools. These new weapon points looked different and were not made with Clovis techniques.

Lab results showed they were up to 16,700 years old, revealing a previously undiscovered pre-Clovis nation. Incredibly, not only are the tools among the oldest in the American West but they appear to be from the direct ancestors of the Clovis culture. Both groups had different production technologies but similar tool types. The way they crafted biface blades remained almost the same. This is suggestive of knowledge being passed down, some kept and others changed. The find is also significant because it shows people arrived on the continent thousands of years earlier than thought.

7. An Alternate Stone Age

In the Taï national park of the Ivory Coast researchers found signs of the Stone Age. However, this time it had nothing to do with the time line of humans. Around 4,300 years ago, prehistoric chimpanzees used stone hammers and anvils to fracture food.

The primitive tools were too unwieldy to have been used by a person, the heaviest weighing almost 7kg. Chimps are the main suspect since the traces of five nut varieties included in their diet (four not eaten by humans) were found on the rocks. The area was not widely settled by people, making it unlikely that they imitated farmers.

Researchers don't know how the chimps developed their own Stone Age but a common ancestor might have passed on this kind of technology to both people and chimpanzees. Closer analysis revealed that the hammers and anvils weren't used in an unsophisticated manner. They didn't merely smash a treat between two stones and picked out the crushed pieces of nut between the shells. Some of the nuts needed the force of over a tonne to crack and the chimps managed to do so without destroying the soft part inside.

6. The Arabian Collection

In the south of Arabia, archaeologists went cave digging in the mountain Jebel Faya when they were rewarded with a stockpile of history-altering instruments. The stone artifacts included hand axes and tools fashioned for cutting, scraping and piercing.

Some of the axes and blades had a near-identical flavor to those made by humans in east Africa. While that doesn't move the earth, the collection's age and location shook conventional wisdom. It was accepted that people first migrated in waves out of Africa between 80,000 and 60,000 years ago. Yet, the Jebel Faya haul came with the creaky age of 125,000 years. This means that people packed up their furs and families and left Africa a whopping 55,000 years earlier than the history books believe.

Like many other finds that fly in the face of accepted history, it caused division among scholars. In this case, those opposed to the idea of an earlier departure reject the notion that the tools were made by modern humans that hailed from Africa. That the cave was a shelter to humans isn't debatable. Previously, objects from the Iron, Bronze and Neolithic periods were also excavated from the site.

The Hobbit

The skull of Homo floresiensis in a display case, the so-called "Hobbit" due to its small size.
The skull of Homo floresiensis in a display case, the so-called "Hobbit" due to its small size. | Source

5. Mystery Indonesians

Indonesia already produced the anthropological pearl that is the Hobbit. The diminutive creature was not the only mysterious hominid found in the area.

In 2007, archaeologists on the island of Sulawesi, chanced upon a gravel pit full of stone tools. Over 200 pieces were excavated, all made by an unknown type of human species. To determine the age of the artifacts, tests were done on feldspar and fossils found at the site. The results suggested that the tools rested in a layer at least 200,000 years old. Homo sapiens didn't arrive on the island until 40,000 years ago.

Researchers believe modern humans eventually encountered this mysterious cousin but what occurred between the two groups remains unknown. There's no real clear picture about what they might have looked like either, other than a type of archaic human possibly related to the small Hobbit from the nearby island of Flores. This older human species could also be uniquely endemic to Sulawesi but finding a skeleton is the only real chance for answers.

4. The Emirau Jade

One piece of jade is refusing to act like jade. Found on Emirau Island near New Guinea, the green stone was shaped 3,300 years ago, most likely by the Lapita people as a tool to carve wood with.

At first, there was nothing unusual about it. Then, during analysis, things got strange. Researchers ran tests to determine which type of jade they were dealing with. There are only two types, jadeite and nephrite. It turned out to be jadeite, but the stone was chemically unlike anything they have ever seen before. Rocks have a mineral fingerprint, depending on where in the world it was formed. All jadeite of the same age only come from Japan and Korea. However, the tool's composition matched neither. In fact, it defied all understanding of how jade is created, by either lacking or having too much of certain elements.

Intrigued, scientists hunted around to find a match for the Emirau jade. Things got even weirder. A similar rock came from Indonesia 600 miles (1,000 km) away but the only chemical match came from a site in Mexico. For the jade to have come from there meant it was somehow transported across the Pacific, something the experts don't feel was possible during the Neolithic.

3. Cryptic Crescents

The biggest of California's Channel Islands first welcomed sailors ashore thousands of years ago. Santa Cruz was settled by the so-called Paleocoastal culture who originally came from Alaska and migrated along the Pacific.

Archaeologists, armed with knowledge gleaned from Ice Age settlements on nearby islands, boarded Santa Cruz. Previously, on San Miguel and Santa Rosa, they had picked up on the "rules" the ancients followed when choosing a site. They preferred a good vantage point, water, a natural shelter and rock capable of being turned into tools. Testing this paradigm on Santa Cruz, they found three areas with all of the requirements. Without fail, at each one they found marks of human occupation.

The showstoppers were unusual stone equipment, including unique points with barbs and crescent-shaped tools. Crescent sites, dating up to 12,500 years old, are known throughout the islands but nobody knows what they were for. Based on the huge amounts of shucked shellfish, the sites likely served as seafood processing plants. The Santa Rosa crescents provided a possible clue to their use. When some were found between bird remains, it spawned a theory that the fisherman threw the odd tools into passing flocks of ducks with the hope of turning one into dinner.

2. Tattoo Tools

Well-preserved bodies with tattoos are really scarce. Ancient tattoo tools are just as rare as the skin samples, since most consisted of degradable materials as well. For this reason, the history of permanent prints on people is far from complete or even entirely understood.

A happy find in the Solomon Islands revealed how the earliest inhabitants of Oceania practiced the craft. But here is a scary thought. Imagine wanting a tattoo but the artist insists on using a sharp piece of glass to deliver the ink. About 3,000 years ago, that was the only way to get some skin art in the South Pacific.

At a place called Nanggu, 15 hardy obsidian instruments were unearthed. Obsidian is a glass that forms naturally during the cooling stages of lava. Initially, the pieces were thought to be a part of cloth and leather production but traces of pigment suggested an alternative use. To figure out how the sharp flakes worked, researchers used replicas and pierced pig skin before inserting charcoal and red ocher (found on the original tools). The idea was to exactly reproduce the obsidian's wear and tear on the replicas while creating tattoos on the pig skin. The process took four months. In the end, the experiment satisfied the team that the volcanic glass was indeed used for body decoration.

Maya Weapon

An earlier example of an obsidian ceremonial knife (1,200-1,500 A.D.)
An earlier example of an obsidian ceremonial knife (1,200-1,500 A.D.) | Source

1. Blood For The Gods

Known for their gory gifts to the gods - mostly other people - the Mayas believed that blood contained life force.

When a sacred gift was required and captives were in short supply, or a particularly sticky problem plagued the nation, the higher powers demanded royal blood. The leader would then cut himself with an obsidian knife. He had a choice of slicing various parts of himself - earlobes, nostrils, tongue and unmentionable places no blade should ever have to go. A direct line of communication to a deity or ancestor was then opened by burning the blood, allowing the leader to plead for a victory or solution.

Always up for a challenge, archaeologists wondered about a way to identify the tools of bloodletting. They already knew that apart from knives, the Mayas also used bone needles, stingray tails and barbed rope but how to tell them (especially the knives) apart from ordinary kitchen utensils?

The study focused on obsidian blades, which was a common find and thus provided plenty to study. The pig skin came out again. This time, things happened in reverse than when scientists tested the tattoo tools. First, bloodletting techniques were tested on the skin with replicas and then the wear and tear was analyzed. Certain microscopic patterns were identified that allowed Mayan knives from ritual sites to be identified and interestingly, most dated to 600-900 A.D. Researchers are hoping that the patterns and future discovery of more such blades might determine whether bloodletting escalated when the Maya watched their world collapse near the end of the 10th century.












Questions & Answers

    © 2017 Jana Louise Smit


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      • Jana Louise Smit profile imageAUTHOR

        Jana Louise Smit 

        5 months ago from South Africa

        Thank you. I'm glad you enjoyed it. Ancient weapons are certainly in a class of their own. :)

      • profile image

        what up? 

        5 months ago

        This so cool!!!!


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