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Humans and our hominid ances­tors are the only species that are able to use tools to make oth­er tools.

Where would we be with­out technology?

The abil­i­ty to make tools influ­enced the way hominids shaped their world, enabling them to con­trol and use fire, make shel­ter, acquire food and make per­son­al pos­ses­sions and dec­o­ra­tive objects.

Tech­nol­o­gy has affect­ed our envi­ron­ment, aid­ed agri­cul­ture, allowed us to cook, facil­i­tat­ed the avail­abil­i­ty of ener­gy and helped to cre­ate our clothes and homes. Despite devel­op­ments in tool tech­nol­o­gy and mate­r­i­al cul­ture over mil­lions of years, our basic needs remain the same, which include access to shel­ter, food, water, heat and safety.

Hand­ed­ness”

The devel­op­ment of tools could be con­nect­ed to the emer­gence of hand­ed­ness”.

Most apes are assumed to be ambidex­trous. Although it is dif­fi­cult to prove, the tool­mak­ers who pro­duced cer­tain Ear­li­er Stone Age tools appear to have been right-hand­ed. This could mean that the ear­ly hominids were begin­ning to reor­gan­ise their brains, with the emer­gence of asym­me­try – an impor­tant fac­tor in evolution.

DIY!

Stone tools show that hominids were manip­u­lat­ing their envi­ron­ments to suit their require­ments. The first human-made shel­ters are asso­ci­at­ed with Acheulean tool use.

But our tech­no­log­i­cal flair has cul­mi­nat­ed in our over-exploita­tion of the world’s resources.

Tech­nos­peak

Stone tool tech­nolo­gies had to be passed on from gen­er­a­tion to generation.

Par­ents would have taught their chil­dren to knap (make stone tools), and they, in turn, would have taught their chil­dren. Some anthro­pol­o­gists argue that the devel­op­ment of tool tech­nol­o­gy is strong­ly con­nect­ed to language.

The mere devel­op­ment of a tool – plan­ning and think­ing through a sequence of steps, which is sim­i­lar to com­pos­ing sen­tences – may have helped to devel­op lan­guage. There may also be a link between the com­plex­i­ty and stan­dard­i­s­a­tion of tools and the use of lan­guage at the time.

Tools for life

Man­u­fac­tur­ing begins

Between 3-mil­lion and 2.6-million years ago, hominids began dis­play­ing a trait dif­fer­ent to any oth­er ani­mal. They began to chip away at stones, using oth­er stones, to make tools with sharp edges: man­u­fac­tur­ing had begun.

Mil­lions of these chipped stones, and the flakes they pro­duced, are lying strewn across Africa.

Cut above the rest

Tool tech­nol­o­gy enabled hominids to enhance their diet. They were able to break open bone to extract mar­row or process tough vegetation.

They were also able to cut branch­es and sharp­en sticks. The use of dig­ging sticks enabled our ances­tors to gath­er nutri­tious under­ground foods such as tubers.

At Oldu­vai Gorge in Tan­za­nia and at Swartkrans in the Cra­dle of Humankind, cut marks made by stone tools on ani­mal bone have been dis­cov­ered. But tooth marks on the bones indi­cate that they were chewed on first by car­ni­vores. This could mean that tools were used on scav­enged car­cass­es, although the inter­pre­ta­tion of such dam­age to bone is difficult.

Stone tool technology

Oldowan tech­nol­o­gy

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Tool made from quartz from Oldu­vai (Source: Flickr)

The old­est known stone tools are from Gona in Ethiopia and were made about 2.6-million years ago, prob­a­bly by ear­ly Homo.

The ear­li­est stone tools were most­ly small quartz or lava peb­bles that were shat­tered to cre­ate sharp-edged implements.

These imple­ments are called Oldowan tools, after Oldu­vai Gorge in Tan­za­nia, where they were first dis­cov­ered. Oldowan tools include both chop­per-like core tools, use­ful for break­ing bone to extract mar­row and pos­si­bly work­ing wood, and sim­ple flakes suit­able for var­i­ous butch­ery tasks.

Core tools were made from the rock cores off which stone flakes were struck. Over time, our ances­tors pre­ferred to use the flakes for tools.

Hominids chose their mate­ri­als care­ful­ly, select­ing suit­able rock types for mak­ing stone arte­facts. Vol­canic rock was used in East Africa, while quartz, quartzite and chert were the most pop­u­lar mate­ri­als for stone tools in the Cra­dle of Humankind. Quartz is brit­tle but sharp and crys­talline, and can be frac­tured easily.

In the Oldowan indus­try there is no evi­dence yet of hominids flak­ing reg­u­lar­ly to pre­de­ter­mined pat­terns. Choos­ing the right mate­r­i­al reflects an aware­ness of the prop­er­ties of local­ly avail­able rocks.

Many ani­mals use or mod­i­fy objects to accom­plish tasks. For exam­ple, sea otters can break mol­lusc shells with rocks, and birds can use twigs or palm fronds to build nests. Chim­panzees and capuchin mon­keys mod­i­fy grass stems to poke ter­mites from mounds, and can use stones to crack open nuts.

Ear­ly hominids could have dis­played sim­i­lar kinds of behav­iour, using nat­u­ral­ly bro­ken pieces of rock as tools. The ear­li­est stone tools used by our hominid ances­tors may be indis­tin­guish­able from nat­ur­al rocks.

Through the Mid­dle and Late Stone Ages, tools became small­er, more refined and designed for spe­cif­ic purposes.

The Mid­dle Stone Age last­ed from about 200,000 years ago to 30,000 years ago in South Africa.

In a tran­si­tion tech­nol­o­gy between the Acheulean and the Mid­dle Stone Age, ear­ly Homo sapi­ens used the Lev­al­lois tech­nique, named after flint tools found in the sub­urb of Lev­al­lois-Per­ret in Paris, France.

This tech­nique was used to cre­ate many flakes of pre­de­ter­mined size and shape by care­ful­ly prepar­ing the core first to make tools for spe­cif­ic pur­pos­es. The ori­gins of this tech­nique, and of blade and point pro­duc­tion, can be traced back to hand-axe times.

There is also evi­dence of the use of bone tools and engraved imagery in the Mid­dle Stone Age.

Acheulean tech­nol­o­gy

Acheulean stone tool tech­nol­o­gy was devel­oped by Homo ergaster about 1.7-million years ago.

The tech­nol­o­gy is named after St Acheul in France where flint hand-axes were found by Bouch­er de Perthes in the 1830s and 1840s.

The Acheulean tools Homo ergaster made were rel­a­tive­ly large and includ­ed han­dax­es, picks and cleavers, all of which they flaked on at least two faces (hence the term bifacial).

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Stone tools dis­cov­ered in Blom­bos cave, South Africa

Acheulean hand-axes were prob­a­bly used for many pur­pos­es. They may have been used as butch­ery tools or heavy duty knives. They are effi­cient at slic­ing tough hide and for work­ing wood. They have been described as the all-in-one tool” of the Ear­li­er Stone Age in Africa.

Blom­bos is an impor­tant site near Stil­baai in the South­ern Cape in South Africa where objects like an engraved rock have been dis­cov­ered, from deposits dat­ing back 77,000 years.

At this stage humans were begin­ning to learn how to craft small flakes, points and blades as part of com­pos­ite tools, such as the tip of a spear.

As the final major advance­ment in stone tech­nol­o­gy, in what is referred to as the Lat­er Stone Age, the man­u­fac­ture of microliths (tiny stone tools) reflects a shift in human think­ing towards design­ing com­pos­ite tools for a range of spe­cif­ic tasks such as arrow­heads and cut­ting tools.

In South Africa, Lat­er Stone Age tech­nol­o­gy devel­oped about 40,000 years ago and was used up until his­tor­i­cal times. Rock art also most­ly dates to the Lat­er Stone Age.

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