Ancient hunters crafted specialized tools to butcher deer 400,000 years ago

A close look at a Quina-like scraper from Jaljulia. Credit: Tel Aviv University.

Researchers from Tel Aviv University have discovered the earliest evidence of special stone tools used to butcher fallow deer, dating back 400,000 years.

These tools, known as Quina scrapers, were found at prehistoric sites in Israel, specifically Jaljulia and Qesem Cave.

Quina scrapers have a sharp, scalloped edge that made it easier for ancient humans to process their prey and its hides.

The study, published in the journal Archaeologies, was led by Vlad Litov and Professor Ran Barkai from Tel Aviv University’s Jacob M. Alkow Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Cultures.

They explain that about 400,000 years ago, after the region’s elephants disappeared, early humans had to adapt their hunting and butchering techniques to smaller, faster animals like fallow deer. This adaptation required new, more efficient tools.

By analyzing over a million years of tool use, the researchers found that early humans originally used simpler stone tools to process the hides and meat of large game like elephants.

However, with the disappearance of these large animals, humans turned to hunting smaller prey. “We found a dramatic change in the human diet during this period,” said Litov.

“The large game, particularly elephants, had disappeared, and humans were forced to hunt smaller animals, especially fallow deer.”

Butchering a large elephant is very different from processing a smaller fallow deer. To efficiently butcher these smaller animals, humans developed the Quina scraper.

These scrapers had better-shaped, sharper, and more uniform edges than the earlier tools, making them more effective for their new purpose.

The study also revealed that the flint used to make these specialized tools came from non-local sources, specifically the Mountains of Samaria, about 20 kilometers east of Jaljulia and Qesem Cave. This area likely served as a calving ground for fallow deer, which may have made it a significant and possibly sacred site for prehistoric hunters.

“This discovery not only shows a practical connection between technological developments and changes in the fauna hunted by early humans, but also a perceptual one,” said Professor Barkai. “We believe that the Mountains of Samaria were sacred to the prehistoric people of Qesem Cave and Jaljulia because that’s where the fallow deer came from.”

Evidence suggests that these prehistoric hunters recognized the importance of the Samarian highlands, both as a source of flint for their tools and as a habitat for fallow deer. The connection between the flint’s origin and the deer’s habitat may have held cultural significance, influencing the hunters’ tool-making practices.

The findings were based on excavations at Jaljulia and Qesem Cave, where many Quina scrapers made from non-local flint were discovered.

The research team believes that the use of these tools began on a small scale about 500,000 years ago at Jaljulia and then became more widespread between 400,000 and 200,000 years ago at Qesem Cave.

The Samarian highlands were likely a vital area for fallow deer throughout history, as evidenced by numerous bone remains found at archaeological sites. These findings suggest that the region may have held cultural significance for hundreds of thousands of years, even being linked to biblical stories.

Overall, this study highlights the adaptability and ingenuity of early humans in response to environmental changes, showcasing their ability to develop new tools and techniques to survive in a changing world.