In the news: Upper Paleolithic humans “mined” stone from Mount Takaharayama to produce trapezoid and other stone tools 35,000 years ago

Early humans in Japan produced stone tools

Humans may have trekked up a mountain 35,000 years ago in what is now Tochigi Prefecture to dig up raw obsidian ore to process into stone tools, archaeologists say.

Trapezoid stone tools unearthed on Mount Takaharayama in the prefecture will shed light on early human history in Japan, they added.

The tools indicate human beings at the start of the Upper Paleolithic Era (roughly 35,000 years ago) were already “mining” raw stones to produce tools, not just picking them up off the ground, the researchers said.

Previous finds had led experts to believe such mining started in the more recent Jomon Period, from 13,000 years to 3,000 years ago.

Archaeologists Takashi Tamura, 56, and Sadakatsu Kunitake, 31, first found the stone tools in 2005 on the 1,795-meter mountain straddling Yaita and other municipalities.

Tamura heads the Department of Historical Sciences at the Natural History Museum and Institute, Chiba, and Kunitake is a lecturer at Josai University in Saitama Prefecture.

A panel formed by the Yaita city board of education conducted a full-scale research dig at the mountain in October 2006.

The team collected 441 stone relics from valley cliffs around the ridges at about 1,400 meters.

Of the pieces found, eight are judged to be trapezoid stone tools used by early humans to cut, poke or shave other items.

Akira Ono, a professor of archaeology at Tokyo Metropolitan University, headed the panel. “Judging from their type, the processing and where they were found, these must be trapezoid tools” like ones typically found in loam layers in the Kanto region that date back 35,000 to 40,000 years ago, he said.

Obsidian, or volcanic glass, from the mountain contains many impurities. Each piece must first be broken open to see if it can be shaped into a tool.

The discovery indicates those who made the tools had developed the high intellect needed to check, screen and process the obsidian into tools on the spot, the researchers say.

Also, knowing where to find the obsidian in the vast Kanto plain, where there are few sources of ore, also indicates their intelligence, Tamura said.

“To understand and share such information, they had to use language,” he said.

Experts note the tools were made around the time first modern homo sapiens began migrating from Africa, beginning about 50,000 years ago.

“Ingenuity is a major feature of modern humans,” said Kenichi Shinoda, chief of the Division of Human Evolution at the National Science Museum, Tokyo. “The Takaharayama relics present images of such people.”

Tsuyoshi Fujimoto, a professor emeritus of archaeology at the University of Tokyo, said the relics offer a “great possibility to shed light on” Japan’s earliest inhabitants.

Source: Asahi, 13 April 2007

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