Research indicates our prehistoric, cave-dwelling ancestors were recyclers and frequently repurposed busted tools into new and useful objects. Creative Commons

If you thought the green movement was a 21st century phenomenon, you’re off by about half a million years. Research shows our prehistoric, cave-dwelling ancestors also lived by the apothegm of the Three Rs (reduced, reuse, recycle).

Almost 50 scholars from 10 countries gathered in Israel last week to share notes about ancient recycling at a conference fittingly titled “The Origins of Recycling.” According to, there is mounting evidence that recycling was around hundreds of thousands of years ago, and that prehistoric cave people deliberately conserved and reused objects from their everyday lives. They even repurposed broken or discarded tools made of bone and flint to create new utensils, researchers said.

“Why do we recycle plastic? To conserve energy and raw materials,” Avi Gopher, a Tel Aviv University archaeologist, said at the conference, according to the Associated Press. “In the same way, if you recycled flint, you didn’t have to go to the quarry to get more, so you conserved your energy and saved on the material.”

Researchers pinpointed various excavation sites throughout the world where signs of prehistoric recycling were revealed. Qesem Cave, an archaeological site as old as 420,000 years near Tel Aviv in Israel, yielded evidence of flint chips being remade into tiny blades to cut up meat. Other sites in Spain, North Africa and Italy produced similar examples of prehistoric repurposing.

There’s evidence that Neanderthals -- close relatives of modern humans who inhabited Europe beginning as long as 600,000 years ago -- near Rome shattered elephant bones to extract marrow, and even shaped the fragments into tools. These tools were abandoned, but picked up later to be reworked and used again, said Giovanni Boschian, a geologist from the University of Pisa, according to IOL SciTech.

One geography professor from Canada noted the “similar responses to the challenges and opportunities presented by life” exhibited among civilizations separated by hundreds of thousands of years. Does that mean our ancient ancestors were the original environmentalists?

Maybe, but not everybody is convinced that the prehistoric recycling movement was deliberate. According to AP, some participants at the conference in Israel cautioned against springing to any conclusions about what was going through our ancient ancestors’ heads. Some scholars pointed out that what could be interpreted as “recycling” was more provisional and happened only when the need came about.

The discovery of possible ancient recycling comes on the heels of a paper published in August in which researchers in Europe argued that Neanderthals weren’t the blockheads popular culture makes them out to be. Instead, the finding of sophisticated bone tools in southwestern France points to the Neanderthals’ developed understanding of tool creation, AP reported via

“It’s adding to a growing body of research ... that’s showing that Neanderthals are capable and did produce tools ... in a way that is much more similar to modern humans than we thought even a couple of years ago,” Rachel Wood, an archaeologist and researcher in radiocarbon dating at the Australian National University, told AP in August.