A breakthrough discovery in Dikika, in the Afar region of northern Ethiopia, has provided unambiguous proof that our ancestors were capable of using stone implements to butcher meat 3.4 million years ago, some 800,000 years earlier than previously realised.

The international team of palaeoanthropologists, led by Dr Zereseney Alemseged from the Californian Academy of Sciences, also made another significant discovery: the stone tools needed for cutting flesh and breaking animal bones were brought from another location, providing proof that the apes travelled from one place to another.

The team uncovered two animal bones: one from a cow-sized animal and the other from a small antelope. Both bones bore evidence of stone cuts inflicted while carving. Dr Alemseged states that the marks could only have been made by an extinct upright-walking species called 'Australopithecus afarensis', made famous by the skeletal discovery of 'Lucy' in the same region in 1974.

A knife-like stone was used to slice away meat, leaving grooves in its wake, while a blunt stone was used to smash bones to reach the marrow inside. Up until now experts believed that tool use began with the arrival of our genus Homo. They now understand that this behaviour developed amongst Lucy's Australophithecus afarensis contemporaries.