The Oldowan is the earliest of the Lower Paleolithic or Early Stone Age typological “cultures.” At present, the earliest Oldowan sites date from about 2.6 my and come from Gona, in the Afar region of Ethiopia. The Oldowan industry terminates at about 1.6 my, which coincides with the beginning of the Acheulean. The Developed Oldowan, which is concurrent with the Acheulean industry but lacks the characteristic bifaces, continues for several hundred thousand years after the end of Oldowan. However, numerous researchers do not consider the Developed Oldowan separate from the Acheulean industry. In the strictest sense, the Oldowan culture is restricted to Africa, although stone tool assemblages predating the Acheulean have been found in other parts of the Old World recently.
The Oldowan culture is named for the type-site of Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania. Olduvai was first investigated by Heinrich Reck during the early 1910s, establishing the basic stratigraphic framework for future investigations. However, it was Louis Leakey who first recognized the significance of the archaeological remains at Olduvai, and established the Oldowan as a stone tool cultural sequence. Leakey established the Oldowan as a new typological culture. Leakey also established the extreme age of the Oldowan culture at Olduvai during the 1950s, when radiometric dating techniques became available. The realization of the extreme age of the Oldowan had a dramatic impact on the study of hominid evolution during this time period.
The Oldowan is frequently defined as a “chopper” or “chopping tool” industry, and it is usually thought of as made on either rolled stone cobbles or nodules of stone. These notions stem from the prominence of pebble choppers, which occur in high frequencies at many Oldowan sites. These choppers are made by removing a few large flakes from one edge of a cobble. In addition, the Oldowan is defined by the presence of a few other core types: discoids, polyhedrons, spheroids, and simple bifaces. These other core tools are made in a very similar process to the chopper, with flaking simply extended around the perimeter of the core in varying degrees. These core tool types are also accompanied by vast assemblages of unmodified flakes, or debitage. The Oldowan also has low frequencies of modified flakes, such as simple scrapers and denticulates. The Oldowan is also frequently defined by the presence of battered stones, perhaps used for smashing objects or used in reducing stone cores.
Many archaeologists have viewed the Oldowan as a primitive version of the later Acheulean. In this respect, many have seen the pebble choppers as a more basic version of the Acheulean hand axe. In addition, many have noted that the Oldowan and Acheulean are extremely similar and are differentiated mainly on the basis of presence or absence of hand axes. This problem was further complicated by the discovery of many sites concurrent with the Acheulean that lacked hand axes. Such sites were often attributed to the Developed Oldowan. In more recent research, such perspectives have been considered increasingly problematic because of the decreased significance given to hand axes as type specimens of the Acheulean.
In this respect, the descriptions above may be somewhat misleading in terms of the variability present within the Oldowan culture. A seminal study by Nicolas Toth showed that unmodified flakes are actually much sharper than the core tools, such as the characteristic choppers. This pointed to the possibility that the focus on core tools was misplaced, and that the real desired end product was sharp flakes, which had been seen as waste up to that time. Toth suggested that core tools were, in fact, the result of particular strategies of core reduction aimed at producing usable flakes, and were thus not intentionally designed. In this way, the morphology of cores, which was the typological basis on which the Oldowan had been defined, was really the accidental result of strategies for the removal of sharp flakes. This presented a substantial critique of Oldowan stone tool typology, which was based entirely on core tools. For this reason, current research tends to give less significance to such typological labels, and focuses more on the inference of behavior linked with a more specific absolute chronology.
Most early researchers of the Oldowan culture felt that its makers were primarily hunters of large game and that this was the evolutionary force that caused both the development of large brains and cognitive complexity and the development of stone tool technology. Evidence of this was initially perceived in the large assemblages of faunal remains that accompany many Oldowan assemblages, such as Olduvai. Later investigations, such as those of Lewis Binford, criticized this notion, instead pointing out the role of carnivores in the accumulations of such faunal assemblages. Despite this, the view remains pervasive that the lithics of the Oldowan culture were primarily butchery implements.
There are numerous species of hominid present in Africa during the span of the Oldowan, significantly complicating the question of who the makers of this industry were. These hominids include the later australopithecines, Homo habilis, and Homo ergaster. When Leakey discovered the first specimen of Homo habilis at Olduvai, he suggested immediately that this hominid, with a larger brain relative to its known ancestors and contemporaries, was the first maker of stone tools. Indeed, this remains the most commonly held opinion on the subject. However, it is also possible that the late australopithecines or even early Homo ergaster individuals were the first to make the Oldowan industry. It is extremely unlikely that there will be any unequivocal evidence concerning this question.
- Klein, R. G. (1999). The human career: Human biological and cultural origins. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Leakey, M. D. (1971). Olduvai Gorge: Excavations in Bed I and II, 1960-1963. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Schick, K. D., & Toth, N. (1993). Making silent stones speak: Human evolution and the dawn of technology. New York: Simon and Schuster.
- Toth, N. (1985). The Oldowan reassessed: A close look at early stone artifacts. Journal of Archaeological Science, 12, 101-120.