Ancient 'Swiss Army Knives' Suggest Early Humans Were Social Across Long Distances

Humans are the only species that can exist in all of the world's natural niches, from ice sheets to deserts, rainforests to savannahs. We are a little species as individuals, but when we are socially connected, we are the most powerful species on the earth.

New evidence from stone tools found in southern Africa suggests that our ancestors' social ties were stronger and wider than previously assumed among those who lived approximately 65,000 years ago, right before the massive "out of Africa" migration that saw them spread around the globe.

Social connection and adaptation

Humans were not always so interconnected. Without this migratory success, the earliest people to leave Africa died out, leaving no genetic imprint among us today.

It was a different tale for the ancestors of today's people living outside of Africa. They had moved into and adapted to every sort of environmental zone on the earth within a few thousand years.

The development of social networks and the ability to transfer knowledge between diverse groups, according to archaeologists, was the key to this accomplishment. But, in the distant past, how can we perceive these social networks?

Archaeologists investigate tools and other human-made artefacts that have survived to answer this issue. We presume that the people who created those artifacts, like people now, were social beings who created culturally significant objects.

Social connectivity 65,000 years ago

A modest, common stone tool allowed us to test this theory in southern Africa roughly 65,000 years ago, during the Howiesons Poort era. These sharp, versatile tools are known as "backed artefacts" by archaeologists, but you might think of them as a"stone Swiss Army knife": the type of handy tool you take about to tackle chores you couldn't do by hand. 

Knives like this aren't just found in Africa. They may be found all over the world and come in a variety of forms. This potential variation is what makes these little blades so helpful for proving the existence of social relationships over 60,000 years ago.

These blades might have been produced in a variety of forms in various locations across southern Africa. However, it turns out that they were constructed to a very similar pattern roughly 65,000 years ago, spanning hundreds of kilometers and numerous environmental niches.

The fact that they were all constructed to seem so similar attests to strong social ties that existed at the time between geographically disparate populations in southern Africa.

This is significant because it demonstrates for the first time that social links existed in southern Africa prior to the large "out of Africa" exodus.

A useful tool in hard times

Previously, it was assumed that individuals produced these blades in reaction to varied environmental stressors, as they are multi-functional and multi-use, similar to the Swiss Army knife.

Stone blades were cemented or bonded to handles or shafts to form sophisticated tools including spears, knives, saws, scrapers, and drills, as well as utilized as arrow points and barbs. Plant material, skin, feathers, and fur were all processed using them.

While the stone blade itself was not difficult to make, the binding of the stone to the handle was, since it required complicated glue and adhesive formulations.

These blades were made in massive quantities across southern Africa during the Howiesons Poort.

The peak in production came during a particularly dry time, when there was less rain and vegetation, according to data from Sibudu Cave in South Africa. These tools had been made for thousands of years prior to the Howiesons Poort, but their production skyrocketed during this era of altering climatic circumstances.

The versatility of this stone tool is due to its multi-functionality and multi-use, which is a significant benefit for hunting and gathering in uncertain or unstable environments.

A strong social network adapted to a changing climate

However, the current manufacturing of this equipment cannot be viewed only as a functional reaction to changing environmental conditions.

We should find distinctions in different environmental niches if their expansion was just a functional reaction to changing conditions. What we discover, however, is a striking uniformity in production numbers and object shape across vast distances and climatic zones.

This indicates that the rise in output should be viewed as part of a socially mediated reaction to changing environmental conditions, with long-distance social relationships aiding access to limited, sometimes unpredictable resources.

The resemblance of stone "Swiss Army knife" across southern Africa reveals the intensity of social relationships during this critical stage in human evolution. Their resemblance shows that the robustness of this social network enabled communities to thrive and adapt to shifting climate circumstances.

These findings have far-reaching implications for understanding how increasing social networks contributed to modern humans' spread out of Africa and into new habitats throughout the world.