A surge in obsidian exploitation more than 1.2 million years ago at Simbiro III (Melka Kunture, Upper Awash, Ethiopia)
Pleistocene archaeology records the changing behaviour and capacities of early hominins. These behavioural changes, for example, to stone tools, are commonly linked to environmental constraints. It has been argued that, in earlier times, multiple activities of everyday life were all uniformly conducted at the same spot. The separation of focused activities across different localities, which indicates a degree of planning, according to this mindset characterizes later hominins since only 500,000 years ago. Simbiro III level C, in the upper Awash valley of Ethiopia, allows us to test this assumption in its assemblage of stone tools made only with obsidian, dated to more than 1.2 million years (Myr) old. Here we first reconstruct the palaeoenvironment, showing that the landscape was seasonally flooded. Following the deposition of an accumulation of obsidian cobbles by a meandering river, hominins began to exploit these in new ways, producing large tools with sharp cutting edges. We show through statistical analysis that this was a focused activity, that very standardized handaxes were produced and that this was a stone-tool workshop. We argue that at Simbiro III, hominins were doing much more than simply reacting to environmental changes; they were taking advantage of new opportunities, and developing new techniques and new skills according to them.