Israel's Qesem Cave, where scientists just uncovered evidence of an ancient school. Israel's Qesem Cave, where scientists just uncovered evidence of an ancient school. Israel's Qesem Cave, where scientists just uncovered evidence of an ancient school. (Photo: Tel Aviv University)

Newly discovered 400,000-year-old school means humans are way older than we thought

Ancient toolmaking school has everyone thinking that our species has been talking, teaching and making tech for a really long time.

Scientists may have just discovered the oldest school in history. Archaeologists from Israel's Tel Aviv University uncovered a cave where humans seem to have taught each other to make tools 400,000 years ago. No word yet on the price of tuition.

Conventionally, anthropologists have thought that our modern species, with all its speaking and technological prowess, is around 100,000 years old. But this discovery may mean modern humans have been around much longer.

So here's the big find: Archaeologists uncovered a bunch of flint tools and tool-making leftovers in Israel's Qesem Cave.

If you're an ancient human making a tool, there's a good chance you are taking a big piece of flint and splitting pieces off it for spears and other tools. This splitting process was pretty difficult, and you can tell when someone messed up. And the archaeologists found a lot of mess-ups in the cave. They also found a lot of expertly split pieces. Since they found both good and bad pieces together, the archaeologists think that teachers probably taught students how to make tools there.

A piece of rock used to make ancient tools found at Israel's Qesem Cave. Rocks used to make ancient tools found at Israel's Qesem Cave. (Photo: Tel Aviv University)

It's a bit like walking into a kitchen and seeing a bunch of perfectly made pies alongside some blobs of burnt dough. You probably walked into a cooking class.

“I wouldn’t talk about a school in the modern sense, but we can see a specific tradition, a specific way of doing things in the cave, which was passed on from generation to generation,” explained Ella Assaf, the Tel Aviv University grad student running the study. “There was definitely a mechanism of knowledge transmission."

Speaking of kitchens, the cave's hearth suggested that the humans who lived there could control fire quite well, another sign that humans were much more advanced back then than previously thought. In fact, some scientists are saying that all these advanced firemaking and toolmaking skills mean that humans must have had language because it would have been too hard to teach this stuff without it.

As someone who learned how to make fires (and tomato sauce) by hanging around a bunch of hunter-gatherers whose language I couldn't speak, I'm skeptical of this claim. But I'm no scientist. And I have no idea how to make a spear from flint. Maybe I'm less advanced than the folks at Qesem.

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