“THE ROLE OF ROCK”
THE EARLIEST STONE TOOLS
2.6 million years ago
|A lava flake from Gona, Ethiopia, dated to approximately 2.6 million years ago.
Credit: Photo courtesy of Tim White. This photo is used with permission. All rights reserved.
“…and we’ll be saying a big hello to all intelligent life forms everywhere…and to everyone else out there, the secret is to bang the rocks together, guys…”
Douglas Adams, 1981, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, p. 96.
We are a very, very strange species… We are the only animal on the planet that is totally dependent upon tools and technology for our existence. None of us could survive anywhere in the world without some reliance upon various sorts of tools. What is more, our technological behavior is learned rather than instinctive, and is culturally transmitted from generation to generation. Tools have not only shaped our adaptation, but have also shaped our brains and our bodies, over millions of years.
We now know that by 2.6 million years ago, some hominid (protohuman) populations began to strike lava cobbles against others to produce the earliest recognizable tools and thus the first identifiable archaeological record. These rocks were sometimes transported some distance (up to several miles) from their geological sources, showing that our ancestors were also embarking on a lifestyle that included habitual carrying of tools and probably transporting food resources as well. At Gona in the Afar region of the Rift Valley of Ethiopia (see map), several archaeological sites have been excavated with simple stone tools dating to 2.6 million years ago. Other famous African localities with early stone tools include Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania (the name for these early technologies is the Oldowan Industry named after this site) and East Turkana (Koobi Fora) in Kenya.
What were these early stone tools used for? Fossil animal bones here and at other sites bear the clear signs of hominid modification to these bones during animal butchery, notably cutmarks from stone knives used for meat-cutting, and percussion-marks from stone hammers from cracking bones to obtain the edible marrow inside. It is likely that stone tools were also used to crack hard-shelled nuts, to shape wooden digging sticks or spears, and perhaps to help fashion simple containers and carrying devices out of bark, hide, or shell.
HOW DO WE KNOW?
The archaeological record documents the earliest stone tools on the African continent, especially in the Great Rift Valley of East Africa. We know the difference between humanly-modified rocks and those found in nature from experimentation and by examining the stone tools made by traditional societies (excavated stone tools and associated fossil animal bones are found in or near volcanic deposits that can be dated by a variety of methods, including argon-argon dating, biostratigraphy, and palaeomagnetism.
WHY SHOULD I CARE?
Tool-use has driven our evolution, and represents an unbroken line of culture and learning from our early ape-like ancestors over two-and-a-half million years ago to ourselves today. It is no understatement to say that if these early proto-humans had not embarked on this type of adaptation, we would probably not be here today (or if we were, we would probably have brains roughly the size of those of modern apes!)
This website is about Oldowan and Acheulean stone tools.
This Smithsonian website is about early hand tools.
This Wikipedia website is about the evolution of stone tool technologies.
This YouTube video contains a NOVA segment of a stone tool making demonstration.
This website is about the earliest stone tools.