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Humans Started Recycling in the Stone Age

Humans Started Recycling in the Stone Age

new study by archaeologists from the Universitat Rovira i Virgili and the Catalan Institute of Human Paleoecology and Social Evolution (IPHES) shows that humans were recycling discarded stone tools as long as 13,000 years ago.

We tend to think that recycling is a modern concept. Back in the 1970s, I remember how novel it seemed to stop tossing aluminum cans and save them in a designated “RECYCLING” bin. Once it was full, my sister and I joined our dad in a can-stomping fest in the backyard, carefully flattening every can before loading them back into the bin and dropping them off for recycling at Safeway’s. Now, of course, recycling means dragging a couple of bins loaded with plastics, paper and more to the curb to be picked up.

But we’re kidding ourselves to think that the 1970s environmental movement ushered in, along with Earth Day, a new era of sustainability. There’s no question that the 19th century Industrial Revolution created a terrible new era of waste and pollution from factories, locomotives and other technological innovations powered by coal. Indeed, the ancient Romans simply threw their household and other (chamber pot) sort of waste straight into the streets (though Rome did have sewers and a goddess, Cloacina, of them).

Humans Have Been Recycling For Millennia

Go back to the Upper Palaeolithic, the Late Stone Age, and there is evidence that humans in the Molí del Salt site in Tarragona in northeast Spain were engaging in sustainable practices. Archaeologists have found that, 13 millennia ago, humans recycled stone tools for other uses, says research in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

As Manuel Vaquero, researcher at the Universitat Rovira i Virgili, notes, it is not easy to determine the re-using of tools for a different function than originally intended. Only after finding a “high percentage of burnt remains” at the Molí del Salt site were he and other archaeologists able to tell that some stone tools had been modified for use after being burnt.

As Science Daily says, recycled tools were those “more common for domestic activities” and, it seems, “associated with immediate needs.” In contrast, tools for hunting (sharp projectiles) were rarely made from recycled artifacts as “recycling is linked to expedited behavior, which means simply shaped and quickly available tools as and when the need arises.”

In particular, “double artifacts,” which combine two tools within a single item, were more likely to be recycled. The tools were most likely not originally meant to be double artifacts but “a single tool was made first and a second was added later when the artifact was recycled,” Vaquero says. That is, the recycling of an artifact shows that humans in the Upper Paleolithic were able to see more than one use from a tool and then to make necessary modifications.

Recycling was also to early humans’ economic advantage as it “increased the availability of lithic resources, especially during times of scarcity.” Humans would not have to find raw materials to make tools, a task requiring them to wander far from camp and expose themselves to dangers.

Currently we each generate about 2.6 pounds of garbage a day; this year, the world is on track to generate 2.6 trillion tons of garbage. If our earliest ancestors could recycle,  nothing should prevent us from striving to make the global garbage heap not larger, but smaller.


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9:06PM PDT on Oct 2, 2012

If one goes to a so-called 3rd world country, you'll still see this tradition of ten thousand years called recycling. Almost every item we would normally discard is being reused for some purpose other than what it was intended for. We should be so ashamed.

Just walking through a departmental store yesterday, my friend and I were discussing about all these items manufactured to appease our insatiable appetite for goods. How much do we actually need, how much would be discarded before it's not useable anymore, how many of them ended up in the landfill, how all of them are contaminating our land, or worse, ocean too?! Consumerism is taking a huge toll on our planet! And I thinks there's no turning back. So, you go figure the consequences.

8:07AM PDT on Oct 2, 2012

Pretty fascinating. History repeats itself.

5:28AM PDT on Oct 2, 2012

Fascinating info - thanks for sharing!

1:39AM PDT on Oct 1, 2012


9:50AM PDT on Sep 30, 2012

recycling is definiterly not "new" - just trendy again....

4:21AM PDT on Sep 30, 2012


8:31PM PDT on Sep 29, 2012

Planned obsolescence is needed if the 'wall street economy' is to keep growing. You must keep barrowing to have enough to spend if you want to have enough of what it takes to survive and participate.If we lived 'with in our means', we'd be poor, because our 'means' aren't enough to live on unless you're middle class, and recycling, re-useing- and repurposeing are now a necessity.
It is no wonder that our government can't stay on a budget, nor can it's finances be run like a household.

7:03PM PDT on Sep 28, 2012

great article

2:46PM PDT on Sep 28, 2012

At this point we should know better, we seem to forgett all the good things and to reapeat the bad ones, mmmhhh.

4:10AM PDT on Sep 28, 2012

I grew up dressed in my brother's hand-me-downs and did not even know they sold 'pre-cut shorts' until I was a teenager, (having only worn cut-off jean shorts when I got teased about wearing 'high-waters' or when I wore the knee patches off yet again). And that was long after all my little dresses had became blouses. I remember those cool walls built out of old bottles and fences made out of scrap wood and tree branches strapped together with sheet strips. Now, I too, pay for the privilege of having a 'recycling bin', you bet your bippy I fill it every week.

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