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Our Global Neighbors: In the Shadows of Aden's Butcher Shop

By: Dr Stan Florek, Category: Science, Date: 09 Dec 2013

The 19th century discovery of stone tools – an early clue to our African origin.

Stone Handaxe, Somalia: E6012

Stan Florek © Australian Museum

Our Global Neighbours is a blog series containing stories from and about cultures around the world.

Indiana Jones of his time - explorer, big-game hunter, gentlemen scientist, flints (stone tools) collector, skilled draughtsman - Heyward Walter Seton-Karr (1859–1938) seemed never tired.

While travelling in Somaliland in 1896, just a little inland from Berbera, he discovered numerous stone tools, including hand-axes of very ancient appearance.

Berbera is a city in northwestern Somalia – once an administrative center of the British protectorate which since 1888 was meant to "secure a supply market, check the traffic in slaves, and to exclude the interference of foreign powers." The British viewed its role principally as a supply of meat for their Indian military outpost in Aden.

Seton-Karr consulted the prominent British archaeologist John Evans and they made a significant correction to scientific theory of their time. Previously some theories assumed that humans originated in the east – as suggested by the oldest human fossils from Java. Ancient stone hand-axes from tropical Africa – comparable to those known from Europe where they were associated with extinct prehistoric animals - required new explanation. It now seems a minor point, but these tools suggested universality of one human species across the Old World and the possibility that tropical Africa was part of the homeland of early humanity.

Subsequently it took many more decades and the pioneering work of Louis Leakey, his associates and family to demonstrate the roots of human origin in Africa. But Seton-Karr’s 1890s discovery south-west of Berbera has symbolic – if not solid evidential – significance.

Some of the ‘flints’ of ‘Aden’s butcher shop’ found their way to the Australian Museum collection in 1897 via an artefact swap with the collector himself. In exchange, Seton-Karr received from the Museum a good sample of stone adzes of Maori people from New Zealand. The acquisition of Somalian hand-axes shows the remarkably broad interest of the Museum and its eagerness to follow the major world-wide research developments of the 19th and early 20th century.