As It Happens

B.C. researcher amazed to find blood on 250,000-year-old axe

A Canadian scientist has managed to get animal blood from a stone. And, even more impressive, it was an axe that sat buried in the Jordanian desert for millennia.
April Nowell is the University of Victoria project leader and a paleoanthropologist. (April Nowell)

A University of Victoria-led team of researchers has discovered rhino blood on a stone axe dating back 250,000 years, giving researchers insight into early humans hunting and diet practices.

It's one of the most important and exciting discoveries of my career.- April Nowell, University of Victoria paleoanthropologist

"We were so excited and it was really an unexpected find," April Nowell, a paleoanthropologist and leader of the expedition, tells As It Happens guest host Laura Lynch.

"It's unexpected for us because, using the technique we've been using, the next oldest example of identifiable protein residue on stone tool is about 11,500 years old. So our work is significantly older than that."

The researchers found 10,000 stone tools in a prehistoric wetland that is now a desert near Jordan.

While doing routine analysis on the tools in the lab, a colleague suggested they try to find protein residue on them, something Nowell was hesitant to do.

"I said, 'Oh, no, they're far too old. It's not going to work.'" But her colleague was persuasive and so she selected six tools to be tested at a lab in Portland. One hand axe came back positive for horse residue.

"I couldn't believe it," Nowell says. "I ran back to the lab and picked another 38 or so to be sent to the lab for additional testing."

In all, 17 tools came back positive for animal proteins, including duck, rhino, horse, camel and wild cattle.

"It's one of the most important and exciting discoveries of my career to date," says Nowell.

The research from this study has the potential to revolutionize what researchers know about early hominin diets.

"When you think about the story of human evolution, it's really the story of the generalist. In order to survive as well as we have and occupy all parts of the planet, practically, we've had to adapt and learn to eat anything and everything we can get our hands on," Nowell explains.

"This is something that happens late in our evolution. Our residue results give us the beginning of that story."


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