The world’s longest running factory

Osaka Castle – Photo Credit: JKT-c

There is a hotel in Japan, called Nisiyama Onsen Keiunkian, that has been open since 705. And that’s not a typo, not 1705, but 705, the hotel has been open for over 1300 years! There was also a Japanese construction company called Kongō Gumi that was founded in 578 and was continuously operating until 2006, until it fell on hard times and went into liquidation. During the ages they built many famous buildings, including Osaka Castle.
But while these two companies might have been the longest running companies to be operating in modern times, they are not the longest running factories in history.

Landscape near Olorgesailie – Photo Credit: Rossignol Benoît

John Walter Gregory, Fellow of the Royal Geogr...

John Walter Gregory, Fellow of the Royal Geographic Society: geologist, geographer and explorer. He conducted the first scientific expedition to Mount Kenya. From 1900-1904 he was Professor of Geology and Mineralogy at the University of Melbourne. Seen here posing with his awesome moustache. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There is a place in Kenya called Olorgesailie, which was rather unremarkable until 1919, when British geologist John Walter Gregory found a series of hominid artifacts. The most common artifact found in Olorgesailie is the stone axe. There are thousands and thousands of them.

The site was first used by early people about 0.9 million years ago and was active until 0.6 million  years ago, it was in operation during this whole time. Two hundred thousand years! (Some sources claim that the period of operation was actually from 1.2 million years ago to 0.2 million years ago.)

What is also very remarkable is that the site was organised, there were areas which were dedicated to making axes and areas that were dedicated to re-sharpening them. Some of the obsidian and quartz rocks that were used to make them were not found in the same place as the ‘factory’, but had to be carried from two different sites, each about 10 km away, which is quite a long way to be carrying rocks.

Moreover, the axes were not particularly good at, well, being axes. They were not particularly sharp and were not very good at chopping or cutting, or anything else really.

Until 2003, when paleontologists discovered part of a skull that probably belongs to homo erectus, no hominid bones had been found on the site. While these people made axes in Olorgesailie, they went to die somewhere else. Homo erectus (meaning ‘upright man’ in Latin) was a direct ancestor of homo sapiens, and lived between 1.8 million years ago and 0.3 million years ago. Homo erectus had the brains of a modern infant.

Prehistoric tools found at the Ologersailie site – Photo Credit: Rossignol Benoît

To summarise, there was a well organised stone-age factory, operating for hundreds of thousand of years, by early hominids who had the mental capacity of a human child, using rocks that had to be carried from far away, only to make stone axes that were not particularly useful. Baffling.


Further reading:

Museum of Kenya Page

“Letters to Nature – Increased age estimate for the Lower Palaeolithic hominid site at Olorgesailie, Kenya”Nature.

J. Cela-Conde, Camilo; Conde, Camilo Josڴae, Cela; Ayala, Francisco José (2007). Human Evolution: Trails from the Past. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-856780-4pp. 212-13

Potts, R. 1994. Variables versus models of early Pleistocene hominid land use. Journal of Human Evolution, 27, 7-24.