Discovered: Ancient humans chose to make recycling part of their daily lives


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When we think of recycling, we think of it as a modern movement. But it might surprise you to learn that ancient humans recycled all the time according to new research by Tel Aviv University at the Qesem Cave.

Discovered during road construction on Israel’s coastal plain, the Qesem Cave has been a Paleolithic archaeological site since 2000. Humans occupied the cave 400,000 years ago and left 200,000 years later. So, for the last 200,000 years, the cave has been a treasure trove of human history waiting to be rediscovered.

“The rich Acheulo-Yabrudian deposits at Qesem Cave offer a rare opportunity to study human adaptation and evolution in the Pleistocene,” lead excavator and professor Ryan Barkai said in 2003, three years after the cave’s discovery. “Because the dates indicate that human activity occurred mostly before 382 kyr, and because the site is located within the ‘out-of-Africa’ corridor, the information obtained by a study of Qesem Cave is likely to contribute substantially to our understanding of the origins and dispersal of modern humans.”

Indeed, the site is also shedding more light on how humans lived. And the latest revelation is that early humans regularly engaged in recycling.

As it turns out, these ancient humans made tools out of flint, a flaky stone that can be shaped into arrowheads and other items humans needed to survive.

And when these tools broke, our ancestors did not just throw them away and start over with a new piece. Instead, the used the stone again for smaller tools.

“Recycling was a way of life for these people,” Barkai said according to Science Daily. “It has long been a part of human evolution and culture. Now, for the first time, we are discovering the specific uses of the recycled ‘tool kit’ at Qesem Cave.”

“We used microscopic and chemical analyses to discover that these small and sharp recycled tools were specifically produced to process animal resources like meat, hide, fat and bones,” team member Dr. Flavia Venditti explained. “We also found evidence of plant and tuber processing, which demonstrated that they were also part of the hominids’ diet and subsistence strategies.”

“The meticulous analysis we conducted allowed us to demonstrate that the small recycled flakes were used in tandem with other types of utensils. They therefore constituted a larger, more diversified tool kit in which each tool was designed for specific objectives,” she continued.

So, humans living there relied on recycling and didn’t throw perfectly good resources away, unlike humans today who waste resources on a daily basis.

Recycling by ancient humans has been studied for years, but the research at the Qesem Cave confirms the practice, meaning we have a lot to live up to because our ancestors knew how to do what we are reluctant to do today, even though the future of our planet is on the line.

In addition, ancient humans used every part of the animals they hunted and engaged in food sharing to make sure everyone got a bite to eat.

“The research also demonstrates that the Qesem inhabitants practiced various activities in different parts of the cave,” Venditti says. “The fireplace and the area surrounding it were eventually a central area of activity devoted to the consumption of the hunted animal and collected vegetal resources, while the so-called ‘shelf area’ was used to process animal and vegetal materials to obtain different by-products.”

“These hominins hunted cooperatively, and consumption of the highest quality parts of large prey was delayed until the food could be moved to the cave and processed with the aid of blade cutting tools and fire,” Mary Stiner wrote in an article published by the National Academy of Sciences.

“Delayed consumption of high-quality body parts implies that the meat was shared with other members of the group. Although not the earliest record of fire as technology in the Levant, Qesem Cave preserves contextual information about cooking and marrow extraction during the late Lower Paleolithic.”

Professors Barkai and Venditti also point out that early humans did not recycle flint because it was scarce, they did it because they wanted to and it resulted in additional types of tools.

“This research highlights two debated topics in the field of Paleolithic archaeology: the meaning of recycling and the functional role of small tools,” Barkai said. “The data from the unique, well-preserved and investigated Qesem Cave serve to enrich the discussion of these phenomena in the scientific community.”

“Our data shows that lithic recycling at Qesem Cave was not occasional and not provoked by the scarcity of flint,” Venditti added. “On the contrary, it was a conscious behavior which allowed early humans to quickly obtain tiny sharp tools to be used in tasks where precision and accuracy were essential.”

Let that be a lesson to all of us that by recycling, we are preserving our resources and helping ourselves at the same time.

To learn more about ancient human recycling, here’s a video via YouTube.

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