One of the fea­tures that dis­tin­guish­es humans and their hominid ances­tors from the rest of the ani­mal king­dom is their pos­ses­sion of com­plex cul­ture, which includes the abil­i­ty to com­mu­ni­cate with spo­ken lan­guage, cre­ate art and make tools. The old­est stone tools dat­ed so far are near­ly 2.6-million years old and come from Ethiopia.

Our ances­tors only began to make more refined tools from bone much more recent­ly, prob­a­bly only with­in the last 100,000 years. Bone tools dat­ed to about 80,000 years ago have been found in Blom­bos Cave, on the south­ern Cape coast of South Africa.

Some sci­en­tists have argued that hominids such as Paran­thro­pus robus­tus were mak­ing bone tools in the Cra­dle of Humankind far longer ago – per­haps more than 1-mil­lion years ago – though this is controversial.

There are two main types of stone tool – those based on flakes chopped off cores of rock, and those made on cores themselves.

Finishingtouchessmall

Researchers put the fin­ish­ing touch­es on the stone tools dis­play at Sterk­fontein Caves

The stone flakes, or flake tools, that were struck off the cores, were more usu­al­ly the desired end-prod­uct and were used for cut­ting and skin­ning ani­mals or to work plant materials.

Stone cores result from strik­ing flakes of stone off a rock. They are com­mon­ly no more than by-prod­ucts of stone tool mak­ing. But some cores could have been used to break open bones for their pro­tein-rich mar­row and to chop up tough veg­e­ta­tion for eat­ing. Rocks that weren’t fash­ioned into stone tools could also have been by hominids for pound­ing or crush­ing seeds and for throw­ing, for example.

Sterk­fontein has pro­duced the old­est stone tools in South­ern Africa – cores and flakes of the Oldowan indus­try dat­ing to near­ly 2-mil­lion years ago.

Oldowan indus­try or technology

The old­est stone tools and most prim­i­tive stone tool tech­nol­o­gy, the Oldowan indus­try, is named after Oldu­vai Gorge in Tan­za­nia, where tools of this type were first discovered.

Sterk­fontein has pro­duced the old­est stone tools in South­ern Africa – cores and flakes of the Oldowan indus­try dat­ing to near­ly 2-mil­lion years ago. These tools were prob­a­bly made by Homo habilis (“Handy man”).

The man­u­fac­ture of stone tools marks the first unique trait of the genus Homo. Oth­er pri­mates remain unable to inde­pen­dent­ly cre­ate these tools.

An under­stand­ing of stone stress fac­tors is required to find the acute angle on the core and give it the sharp, glanc­ing blow required to break off a flake. Chip­ping flakes off cores is known as knap­ping”. Mas­ter­ing the tech­nique can take days of prac­tice, even for mod­ern humans.

Today, sci­en­tists con­duct knap­ping exper­i­ments to deter­mine what abil­i­ties and tech­niques are need­ed to cre­ate var­i­ous stone tools, and to under­stand the evi­dence ear­ly hominids left behind. By com­par­i­son with lat­er indus­tries, the Oldowan is infor­mal, vari­able and rep­re­sents the sim­plest form of stone tool tech­nol­o­gy. Some­times, Oldowan tools were cre­at­ing by sim­ply break­ing pebbles.

Fos­sil hand­bones from Sterk­fontein show that the hand anato­my required to cre­ate and use Oldowan tools did not orig­i­nate with the genus Homo, as even Aus­tralo­p­ithe­cus had hands capa­ble of using tools. Rather it was the need to expand their diet and respond flex­i­bly to their envi­ron­ment through cul­tur­al adap­ta­tions that led our more direct ances­tors to invent stone tools.


Stone Age Tools

The man­u­fac­ture of stone tools marks the first unique trait of the genus Homo

Oldowan indus­try (Ear­li­er Stone Age)

Tool Types: The Oldowan indus­try was the ear­li­est of all stone tool tech­nolo­gies, emerg­ing just after 2.6-million years ago, dur­ing the Ear­li­er Stone Age. Sim­ple flakes were the most impor­tant tool type. Cores (the rocks off which the flakes are chipped) includ­ed those shaped as chop­pers (flaked along an edge), dis­coids (flaked to a disk-shape) and poly­he­drons (cores with many facets). Some cores could also have been used as tools. Pro­to­b­i­faces from this time were rare core-tools that had been shaped to a point

Age: Approx­i­mate­ly 2.6-million years ago to 1.7-million years ago

Raw mate­ri­als: Quartz, chert, quartzite and var­i­ous igneous (vol­canic) rocks

Who made these tools? Homo habilis and pos­si­bly ear­li­er Homo species, pre­ced­ing Homo habilis

Ear­ly Acheulean indus­try (Ear­li­er Stone Age)

Tool Types: Lead­ing on from the Oldowan, the Ear­ly Acheulean saw the appear­ance of han­dax­es (shaped to a point) and cleavers (shaped to a sharp, cut­ting edge). Manu­ports (rocks car­ried to a site for future use) occurred in larg­er num­bers than before and showed a greater reliance on using stone for tools. Manu­ports have been found in East and South African sites (espe­cial­ly at Sterk­fontein and Swartkrans).

As in the Oldowan, flakes con­tin­ued to be the most impor­tant tools, but there was now more use of heavy-duty core tools like chop­pers, han­dax­es and cleavers. Cores – off which the flakes were chipped for tools – includ­ed those shaped as chop­pers (flaked along an edge); dis­coids (disk-shaped) and poly­he­drons (mul­ti-faceted).

In addi­tion to large num­bers of Ear­ly Acheulean tools found at Sterk­fontein and Swartkrans, oth­er sites in the Cra­dle of Humankind (Krom­draai, Cooper’s, Goldsmith’s and Dri­molen) have pro­duced small­er num­bers that prob­a­bly date from this period.

Raw mate­ri­als: Quartz, chert, quartzite and var­i­ous igneous (vol­canic) rocks

Who made these tools? Homo ergaster

Acheulean tech­nol­o­gy

The Ear­ly Acheulean indus­try emerged after the Oldowan and last­ed from about 1.7-million years ago to 1-mil­lion years ago. This saw the begin­ning of a long tra­di­tion of mak­ing han­dax­es and cleavers. Impor­tant was a new abil­i­ty to strike larg­er flakes off a core and to use them for mak­ing more heavy-duty tools. Acheulean tools were more reg­u­lar in shape and involved mul­ti­ple steps in their man­u­fac­ture, which pro­vides insight into the cog­ni­tive devel­op­ment of their mak­ers, Homo ergaster.

Hun­dreds of ear­ly Acheulean cores, flakes and manu­ports (tools car­ried from else­where), as well as a small­er num­ber of chop­pers, han­dax­es and cleavers, have been recov­ered from Sterk­fontein and Cra­dle of Humankind sites. Such larg­er, core-based tools were made main­ly from quartzite, which flakes in a pre­dictable way.

The name Acheulean comes from a site called St Acheul in France, where Acheulean han­dax­es were first recog­nised in the ear­ly 1800s, long before Charles Dar­win artic­u­lat­ed his the­o­ry of evo­lu­tion. The finds cre­at­ed con­tro­ver­sy at the time, with many refus­ing to believe they were made by human ances­tors. Some even argued that the han­dax­es had been cre­at­ed nat­u­ral­ly by thunderbolts!

The Ear­ly Acheulean last­ed from about 1.7-million to 1-mil­lion years ago. This was fol­lowed by the Mid­dle Acheulean from about 1-mil­lion years ago to 600,000 years ago, and the Lat­er Acheulean from about 600,000 years ago to 300,000 years ago.

Acheulean tech­nol­o­gy remained rel­a­tive­ly unchanged for more than a mil­lion years, but the appar­ent lack of progress masks a crit­i­cal peri­od when Homo ergaster gave way to more evolved species of Homo, such as Homo hei­del­ber­gen­sis and archa­ic (ancient) Homo sapi­ens. Acheulean tech­nol­o­gy was car­ried out of Africa to Europe and as far east as India.

Mid­dle Acheulean indus­try (Ear­li­er Stone Age)

Tools: The Mid­dle Acheulean peri­od, which last­ed from about 1-mil­lion years ago to 600,000 years ago, saw greater stan­dard­i­s­a­tion of han­daxe tech­nol­o­gy and the man­u­fac­ture of bet­ter-made han­dax­es and more cleavers. Flakes were now more often retouched”, or light­ly flaked around their edges in order to re-sharp­en them or to cre­ate a type of work­ing edge.

Core types in the Mid­dle Acheulean were sim­i­lar to those in the pre­vi­ous Oldowan and Ear­ly Acheulean industries.

Age: 1-mil­lion years ago to 600,000 years ago

Raw Mate­ri­als: Quartz, chert, quartzite and var­i­ous igneous (vol­canic) rocks

Who made these tools? Pos­si­bly an unknown Homo species, more evolved than Homo ergaster, as rep­re­sent­ed by hominid fos­sils from Bodo (Ethopia), Buia (Eritrea), Olorge­sailie (Kenya) and Ndu­tu (Tan­za­nia)

Lat­er Acheulean (Ear­li­er Stone Age)

Tools: The Lat­er Acheulean indus­try, which occurred after 600,000 years ago in the Ear­li­er Stone Age, saw a greater stan­dard­i­s­a­tion of han­daxe tech­nol­o­gy, requir­ing a high degree of com­pe­tence from the tool­mak­ers. The Lat­er Acheulean also saw an increase in the amount of pre­pared cores” which were used to cre­ate flakes of pre­de­ter­mined size and shape for spe­cif­ic tasks.

By about 300,000 years ago, there were impor­tant changes among hominids, who were by now phys­i­cal­ly sim­i­lar to mod­ern humans. Dur­ing this peri­od, tran­si­tion­al tool tra­di­tions emerged, such as the Fau­re­smith and San­goan indus­tries, mark­ing the pro­gres­sion from the Ear­li­er Stone Age to the Mid­dle Stone Age. The Fau­re­smith indus­try was con­cen­trat­ed in areas of grass­land and was typ­i­fied by small, ele­gant tools, which were prob­a­bly used for butchery.

The San­goan indus­try is asso­ci­at­ed with more wood­en habi­tats. San­goan tools were larg­er and heav­ier than Fau­re­smith tools and were prob­a­bly used for wood­work. By 300,000 years ago, haft­ed tools – tools stuck into wood and bone, some­times with resin and bound with thongs – first appeared.

Age: Approx­i­mate­ly 600,000 years ago to 300,000 years ago.

Raw mate­ri­als: Quartz, quartzite, var­i­ous igneous rocks, chert, sil­cretes, hornfels.

Who made these tools? Archa­ic (near mod­ern) Homo sapi­ens, some­times called Homo hei­del­ber­gen­sis.

Mid­dle and Lat­er Stone Age: small­er, fin­er tools

The devel­op­ment of a new stone flak­ing tech­nique, the Lev­al­lois tech­nique, is asso­ci­at­ed with the Mid­dle Stone Age (rough­ly 280,000 to 40,000 years ago in South­ern Africa) and with the pro­gres­sion toward mod­ern Homo sapi­ens. The Lev­al­lois tech­nique allowed our ances­tors to cre­ate many flakes of pre­de­ter­mined size and shape by care­ful­ly prepar­ing the core first.

The pro­duc­tion of these stan­dard­ised flakes is asso­ci­at­ed with the first haft­ing of stone tools into han­dles and shafts (com­pos­ite tools such as clubs). Mid­dle Stone Age hominids aban­doned the use of heavy core-tools when they invent­ed a more light­weight, mobile toolk­it. In South Africa, com­pos­ite tools were wide­ly used in some regions between 80,000 and 60,000 years ago, though they first appeared in Zam­bia about 300,000 years ago.

By about 40,000 years ago, humans had learned to craft small flakes and blades for their com­pos­ite tools – such as the tips of spears. These small, slen­der stone tools are known as microliths. The devel­op­ment of these tools was the final major advance­ment in stone tech­nol­o­gy. They allowed humans to design tools for an ever greater vari­ety of spe­cif­ic tasks.

Stone was replaced by cop­per, bronze and tin in tool-mak­ing as more com­plex soci­eties arose about 5000 years ago. This Bronze Age was fol­lowed by an Iron Age. In sub-Saha­ran Africa, the Iron Age suc­ceed­ed the Stone Age direct­ly, about 2000 years ago.

Though the use of stone tool tech­nol­o­gy has most­ly died out, there is still knowl­edge of it in some com­mu­ni­ties, and among the San in South­ern Africa it con­tin­ued well into the colo­nial era.



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There are stone tool sites across Africa.

Mid­dle and Lat­er Stone Age: small­er, fin­er tools

The devel­op­ment of a new stone flak­ing tech­nique, the Lev­al­lois tech­nique, is asso­ci­at­ed with the Mid­dle Stone Age (rough­ly 280,000 to 40,000 years ago in South­ern Africa) and with the pro­gres­sion toward mod­ern Homo sapi­ens. The Lev­al­lois tech­nique allowed our ances­tors to cre­ate many flakes of pre­de­ter­mined size and shape by care­ful­ly prepar­ing the core first.

The pro­duc­tion of these stan­dard­ised flakes is asso­ci­at­ed with the first haft­ing of stone tools into han­dles and shafts (com­pos­ite tools such as clubs). Mid­dle Stone Age hominids aban­doned the use of heavy core-tools when they invent­ed a more light­weight, mobile toolk­it. In South Africa, com­pos­ite tools were wide­ly used in some regions between 80,000 and 60,000 years ago, though they first appeared in Zam­bia about 300,000 years ago.

By about 40,000 years ago, humans had learned to craft small flakes and blades for their com­pos­ite tools – such as the tips of spears. These small, slen­der stone tools are known as microliths. The devel­op­ment of these tools was the final major advance­ment in stone tech­nol­o­gy. They allowed humans to design tools for an ever greater vari­ety of spe­cif­ic tasks.

Stone was replaced by cop­per, bronze and tin in tool-mak­ing as more com­plex soci­eties arose about 5000 years ago. This Bronze Age was fol­lowed by an Iron Age. In sub-Saha­ran Africa, the Iron Age suc­ceed­ed the Stone Age direct­ly, about 2000 years ago.

Though the use of stone tool tech­nol­o­gy has most­ly died out, there is still knowl­edge of it in some com­mu­ni­ties, and among the San in South­ern Africa it con­tin­ued well into the colo­nial era.

Mid­dle Stone Age (MSA)

Tools: Pre­pared core tech­nolo­gies were now wide­ly used and com­pos­ite toolk­its (such as tools bound or haft­ed” to pieces of wood as spears) become com­mon. Tools includ­ed tri­an­gu­lar flakes; blades; den­tic­u­lates (tools retouched to a ser­at­ed edge); retouched points and scrap­ers. Haft­ed tools includ­ed backed pieces (seg­ments and trape­zoids) in some regions and some peri­ods (back­ing is the blunt­ing of one edge of a tool at an approx­i­mate­ly 90º angle to aid in the mount­ing of stone in hafts). Seg­ments are shaped like the seg­ment of an orange, while trape­zoids have four sides, two of which are par­al­lel. Occa­sion­al grind­stones occurred (flat stone blocks with a shal­low depres­sion, used for pro­cess­ing hard items like seeds). Rare bone points are also found from this period.

Age: Approx­i­mate­ly 300,000 to 40,000 years ago

Raw mate­ri­als: Fine-grained raw mate­ri­als such as sil­cretes and agates, quartz, quartzite, chert, horn­fels and basalt

Who made these tools? Archa­ic and mod­ern Homo sapi­ens

Lat­er Stone Age (LSA)

Tools: The Lat­er Stone Age saw the emer­gence of microlith­ic (tiny) tool types includ­ing adzes (for cut­ting wood); scrap­ers; blades; seg­ments; trape­zoids; points; backed tools; plus grind­stones, and bored stones (used as dig­ging stick weights)

Age: From 40,000 years ago to his­tor­i­cal times

Raw mate­ri­als: Fine-grained raw mate­ri­als such as sil­cretes, agates and obsid­i­an, as well as quartz, quartzite, chert, and hornfels

Who made these tools? Mod­ern humans (Homo sapi­ens)