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    Some of the oldest flint tools in Poland identified

    Not tens of thousands of years old, but around half a million years old, are flint tools discovered over 50 years ago in the Tunel Wielki Cave (Małopolskie region) – these are the results of the latest analyses. This means that they are some of the oldest products of human hands in present-day Poland.

    Dr Małgorzata Kot, from the Faculty of Archaeology at the University of Warsaw, is leading a wide-ranging project to analyse artefacts and bones discovered by archaeologists several decades ago during excavations in caves in the Krakow-Częstochowa Upland. One of these is the Tunel Wielki Cave near Ojców.

     

    Most of the finds went into cardboard boxes immediately after the excavations and then into storage. In recent years, researchers have proceeded to analyse them in detail.

     

    For a long time, scientists believed that the oldest traces of human presence in the Tunel Wielki cave were at most 40,000 years old. It turned out that these initial findings were wrong. A team of experts from the University of Warsaw, the Polish Academy of Sciences, and the University of Wrocław – archaeologists, palaeontologists, palaeobotanists and geologists – took another look at, among other things, artefacts and bones from the various layers of earth in the cave.

     

    “It started with an observation by an expert dealing with the remains of small mammals, Dr Claudio Berto. He said that the species he was analysing were certainly older than 40,000 years and could be up to half a million years old,” Dr Małgorzata Kot recalls in an interview with PAP (Polish Press Agency). The researcher was very surprised by such conclusions.

     

    Among the small bones, mainly teeth were the remains of ancient relatives of today’s rodents. But there were also remains of larger animals. These were worked out by palaeontologists from the ISEZ Pan in Krakow and the University of Wrocław. All of the remains were present in Poland 450-550 000 years ago.

     

    In the same layer, there were also 40 flint artefacts – mainly refuse from the manufacture of tools, but also some final products, including small flint knives.

     

    “Since these artefacts come from the same layer as the bones, it means that their ages are very similar. The re-excavations carried out in the cave in 2018 also confirmed this conviction. These confirmed the layer layout described by the researchers half a century ago. In addition, we discovered further production waste and animal bones,” Dr Kot emphasised.

     

    The animal bones bear no signs of cutting or processing. This means that they do not come from animals hunted by humans. Rather, according to scientists, people of the time hunted other, less dangerous species. 

     

    “So far, only two sites in the area of present-day Poland have been known where equally old flint artefacts have been discovered – in Trzebnica and Rusko in the Lower Silesian Voivodeship. There are no older remains of human presence in our area,” Dr Kot pointed out.

     

    These finds are also very rare in other parts of Europe. These tools were made by Homo heidelbergensis. He was not, however, the ancestor of modern man, but of another of our relatives, the Neanderthal, who appeared on the Earth some 250 000 years ago. It was tools made by this species of man that were found in the Małopolska cave.

     

    The discovery from Małopolska is unique in several aspects. First of all – as the researcher points out – the artefacts were discovered in a cave. Meanwhile, in this area of Europe, they have so far only been known from open sites.

     

    “We were surprised to find that half a million years ago, people in this area stayed in caves because they were not the best places to camp. Moisture and low temperatures discouraged this. On the other hand, a cave provides a natural refuge. It is an enclosed space and gives a sense of security. We have found traces that may indicate that the people who lived there used fire, which probably helped to tame these dark and damp places,” Dr Kot said.

     

    According to her, the finds from the Tunel Wielki cave are among the very few pieces of evidence of the first humans who ventured north of the Carpathian Mountains. “It is rather unlikely that they wandered further north. We are most likely at the northern limit of their ability to survive,” the researcher says.

     

    Admittedly, the climatic conditions differed little from those of today, but they were nevertheless a challenge for the people of that time.

     

    “This is an insanely interesting aspect of the analyses for us. We can study the limits of Homo heidelbergensis’ ability to survive, and thus observe how it adapted to these unfavourable conditions,” the expert added.

     

    Researchers hope to find bones of Homo heidelbergensis in the Tunel Wielki cave in the future. These would be the oldest human remains discovered on Polish soil. The oldest currently known belong to a Neanderthal and are at least 50,000 years old.

     

    The research in the Tunel Wielki cave, which is part of a wider project, is funded by the National Science Centre.

     

    An article on the oldest man-made tools on Polish soil has just been published in ‘Scientific Reports’ (https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-022-20582-0).

     

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