Lithic landscapes: early human impact from stone tool production on the central Saharan environment



Foley RA, Lahr MM.


PLoS One. 2015 Mar 11;10(3):e0116482. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0116482. 2015.


Humans have had a major impact on the environment. This has been particularly intense in the last millennium but has been noticeable since the development of food production and the associated higher population densities in the last 10,000 years. The use of fire and over-exploitation of large mammals has also been recognized as having an effect on the world’s ecology, going back perhaps 100,000 years or more. Here we report on an earlier anthropogenic environmental change. The use of stone tools, which dates back over 2.5 million years, and the subsequent evolution of a technologically-dependent lineage required the exploitation of very large quantities of rock. However, measures of the impact of hominin stone exploitation are rare and inherently difficult. The Messak Settafet, a sandstone massif in the Central Sahara (Libya), is littered with Pleistocene stone tools on an unprecedented scale and is, in effect, a man-made landscape. Surveys showed that parts of the Messak Settafet have as much as 75 lithics per square metre and that this fractured debris is a dominant element of the environment. The type of stone tools–Acheulean and Middle Stone Age–indicates that extensive stone tool manufacture occurred over the last half million years or more. The lithic-strewn pavement created by this ancient stone tool manufacture possibly represents the earliest human environmental impact at a landscape scale and is an example of anthropogenic change. The nature of the lithics and inferred age may suggest that hominins other than modern humans were capable of unintentionally modifying their environment. The scale of debris also indicates the significance of stone as a critical resource for hominins and so provides insights into a novel evolutionary ecology.

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Link/DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0116482