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Stone tools, Somalia.
Stone tools, Somalia. From the Seton-Karr collection in the 1890s. Image: Finton Mahony
© Australian Museum

In 1896 Seton-Karr discovered stone hand axes at Jalelo, roughly mid-way between the port of Berbera and the inland town of Hargeisa, to the south-west, in Somalia. In a number of articles in the Journal of the Anthropological Institute, he described his discovery and asserted ‘I have now run palaeolithic man “to earth” in tropical Africa, so far as I know for the first time.’

Similar hand axes known from some sites in France (Abbeville) and England (Hoxne) were discovered in geological context – in layers several metres below the surface - and associated with extinct ‘ice-age’ animals, including mammoth, rhinoceros and lion. These allowed to firmly establish their ancient origin as well as approximate dating to over 300,000 years ago. The evidence from Abbeville was gathered and presented to a scientific community in 1859 by John Evans, Joseph Prestwich and supported by Charles Lyell, coinciding with the publication of ‘The Origin of Species’ by Charles Darwin. It was a milestone in establishing human antiquity and also in bringing rigor to assembling archaeological evidence.

Seton-Karr found his hand axes on the slopes of a hill near the Issutugan River, ‘having been apparently exposed by the action of the rain.’ They were ‘not found under geological conditions’ similar to Abbeville and Hoxne. ‘Bones of extinct animals were also absent, as is usual in Africa.’ Thus it was not possible to estimate their antiquity by association with geomorphological formations. Subsequent research, in the 20th century, demonstrated that stone hand axes of this form are associated with early human Homo erectus (upright hominid) and were made and used as far back as 1.7 million years ago.

Seton-Karr’s Somalian hand axes, to my understanding, were not dated and they could be considerably younger, as this form of stone tool remained in use up to about 40,000 years ago. However, at the end of the 19th century, they helped to bring scientific attention to Africa as a potential place of human origin. This scenario was promoted by Charles Darwin on biological grounds, without the benefit of African fossils of prehistoric humans that were eventually discovered and studied through the 20th century.