Kenyanthropus platyops - 3.3 Million Year Old Tool Maker

Were the First Stone Tools Made by an Australopithecus?

Authors Sonia Harmand and Jason Lewis Examining Stone Lomekwi 3
Authors Sonia Harmand and Jason Lewis Examining Stone Lomekwi 3. MPK-WTAP

One of our hominin ancestors, the "flat faced Kenyan man" may be a distinct species (Kenyanthropus playtops), or closely related or even equivalent to the better established hominid Australopithecus. The only site where K. platyops has been found is the paleontological site of Lomekwi 3 in the Turkana basin of Kenya, within the Lomekwi member of the Nachukui formation, dated between 3.0 and 3.4 million years ago (mya).

The only other hominin in the region at the time was Australopithecus afarensis, the most well-known example of which is Lucy. In a Nature article published in May of 2015, archaeologists Sonia Harmand and colleagues report that they have discovered purposefully made stone tools at Lomekwi.

The stone tool discoveries at Lomekwi represent the earliest stone tools found anywhere to date. Lomekwi is 800,000 years older than the next known stone tools, found at the Ethiopian sites of Gona (2.6 mya) and Bouri (2.5 mya). Evidence for stone tool use of that age has been suggested before, however: in 2010, evidence of cutmarks believed to represent butchery at the Australopithecine Dikika site in Ethiopia was reported, dated to 3.4 mya. While the interpretations at Dikika are still somewhat controversial, experimental replication studies in 2012 supported the results. And, the stone tools at Lomekwi would appear to be further support of that.

  • Page two has a description of the stone tools if you want to "cut to the chase".

Lomekwi and Kenyanthropus

K. platyops was first defined by paleontologist Maeve Leakey's team in 2001, with 30 pieces of bone, including a largely complete although distorted cranium, two mandibles (lower jaws), two partial maxillae (upper jaws) and isolated teeth.

It was the August 1999 discovery of the cranium (KNM-WT 40000) that impelled Leakey and associates to propose a new species.

The cranium falls within the size range of Au. afarensis and Au. africanus, although the cranial capacity could not be determined because of the skull's distortion. The teeth are smaller than any of the hominids of the time, include Au. anamensis, Au. afarensis and Homo habilis. Besides tooth size, the main difference between H. habilis and Kenyanthropus is a flat plane beneath the nose and a tall cheek region--those characteristics also belong to Australopithecus. K. platyops has other common elements with H. rudolfensis and Au. garhi: Leakey and colleagues argue that the entire constellation of elements that make up the hominin skull at Lomekwi 3 is not seen elsewhere, making it problematic to place in either Homo or Australopithecus.

However, paleontologist Tim White (2013) asserts that K. platyops should best be considered an early Australopithecus, and that the discoveries at Dmanisi--where a wide variety of facial and cranial variations are all ascribed to H. erectus--suggests that the variety in facial features could also be the case with the various Australopithecines, including Lomekwi.

Environment, Animals and Diet at Lomekwi

Lomekwi 3 is on the west side of the modern Lake Turkana, within a small hill made of deposits within the Lomekwi member of the Nachukui formation. Lomekwi 3 is believed to be a primary context site, one that has only been slightly disturbed, based on the variety of artifact sizes and relatively slight amount of abrasion on them. Waterlain or moved deposits tend to be size-sorted and relocated artifacts are often abraded.

The collection of animal bone found at the site indicate that when K. platyops lived there, the region was relatively well-watered and vegetated, with a mosaic of habitats supporting both woodland and forest-edge species. Animals represented in the bone assemblage include extinct forms of elephant, hippopotamus and crocodile. Theropithecus brumpti (an extinct terrestrial monkey) is common; Kolpochoerus limnetes (a pig), Tragelaphus nakuae (a bovid) and Aepyceros shungurensis (an antelope) were all identified at Lomekwi: cut marks on the bones were not identified on either the animal or hominin bones although marks made by carnivores were noted.

Stable isotope analysis of 21 of the hominin teeth from the site (Cerling et al.) showed that the hominins ate a wide variety of foods, from a strictly C3 plant (or animals who fed on plants in a subtropical environment) diet to one based predominantly on C4 plants or plant-eaters (plants found in a wider range of environments). Assuming the teeth all come from K. platyops, the wide variety of food choice is very unusual in early hominids.

Stone tools were discovered both eroded out onto the modern surface and buried within the earth in situ. In total 149 stone tools have been found, including 83 cores, 35 whole and broken flakes, seven potential anvils, seven percussors, three worked cobbles, two split cobbles and 12 indeterminate fragments. Artifacts were made of basalts and phonolites, raw materials available in local paleo-channels.

Experimental replication of the core reduction technique shows that the knappers used passive hammer or bipolar methods to pop off sharp edged flakes from the cores. Experimental replications of the flakes indicate evidence of intentional knapping from cores. The stone tools are larger and less finely worked compared to early sites such as Gona, Omo Kibish, Hadar, Lokalalei and FLK Zinj; and the research team led by Harmand argues that the tools were probably used variously as anvils, cores to produce flakes or pounding tools.

Although the news release only had a photo of one stone tool, the site has a selection of 3-d scans of the tools online at African Fossils


This article is a part of the guide to the Lower Paleolithic, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Brown B, Brown FH, and Walker A. 2001. New Hominids from the Lake Turkana Basin, Kenya.

Journal of Human Evolution 41(1):29-44. doi: 10.1006/jhev.2001.0476

Cerling TE, Manthi FK, Mbua EN, Leakey LN, Leakey MG, Leakey RE, Brown FH, Grine FE, Hart JA, Kaleme P et al. . 2013. Stable isotope-based diet reconstructions of Turkana Basin hominins. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 110(26):10501-10506.

doi: 10.1073/pnas.1222568110

Harmand S, Lewis JE, Feibel CS, Lepre CJ, Prat S, Lenoble A, Boës X, Quinn RL, Brenet M, Arroyo A et al. . 2015. 3.3-million-year-old stone tools from Lomekwi 3, West Turkana, Kenya. Nature 521:310-315. doi: 10.1038/nature14464

Leakey MG, Spoor F, Brown FH, Gathogo PN, Kiarie C, Leakey LN, and McDougall I. 2001. New hominin genus from eastern Africa shows diverse middle Pliocene lineages. Nature 410(6827):433-440. doi: 10.1038/35068500

Lieberman DE. 2001. Another face in our family tree. Nature 410(6827):419-420. doi: 10.1038/35068648

White T. 2013. Paleoanthropology: Five’s a Crowd in Our Family Tree. Current Biology 23(3):R112-R115. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2012.12.001