Turns out that all those reminders for us to recycle, recycle, recycle aren’t quite as modern a phenomenon as we’ve believed! While it sure seems like environmentalists have turned up the heat these past few decades, the truth is that there’s mounting evidence that prehistoric humans were excellent recyclers—and they didn’t even have a Blue Box.
An international conference of researchers in Israel, entitled “The Origins of Recycling: A Paleolithic Perspective”, saw presentations and discussions on prehistoric recycling habits. In the same way that we recycle items like plastic and paper in order to create new items, people in ancient times collected broken tools or items made of flint and bone in order to create new things.
Archaeologist Ran Barkai said that this recycling behavior “appeared at different times, in different places, with different methods according to the context and the availability of raw materials.”
That said, it’s likely that Homo erectus, Neanderthals, and other hominids weren’t driven by a desire to “save the environment” or protect the planet, the way we tend to think about recycling in modern times, but the concept of energy conservation isn’t new either. If you recycle a piece of broken flint to create something new, you don’t have to find more. If you recycle a piece of bone to create a utensil or weapon, you don’t have to find another one that’s the right shape and size.
It’s possible that this behavior began unconsciously, and then began happening on purpose after the benefits became clear. A dry pond near Rome has apparently yielded Neanderthal bone tools from 300,000 years ago, many of which show various levels of reuse and recycling—for example, “the bones were shattered to extract the marrow, then the fragments were shaped into tools, abandoned, and finally reworked to be used again” (Giovanni Boschian, University of Pisa; geologist).
At Qesem cave near Tel Aviv, archaeologists have found flint chips that were reshaped as small blades capable of cutting meat—a possible early form of cutlery! And for the skeptics who wonder whether the flint chips were a natural phenomenon: scientists have methods to determine natural vs. man-made alterations to a particular material, looking at things like the object’s patina (progressive discoloration) or surrounding evidence of reuse.
While the evidence for recycling in ancient history was certainly driven by different reasons than modern-day recycling, one thing is clear: No matter when or where in history, humans “appear to display similar responses to the challenges and opportunities presented by life over thousands of years” (Norm Catto, Memorial University of St. John’s; geographer).