The first stone tools: The Oldowan Industry

Chimps utilise a wide range of tools but they are all made of natural materials which decay. They cleverly alter twigs to turn them into termite fishing sticks, then (surprise surprise) they use them to fish for termites.

It’s rather clever behaviour and provides interesting clues on the cognitive capacity and lifestyle of these animals. But since they decay, were we looking at them hundreds of thousands of years after they fished for termites we would have no clues they did so.

This is the position we’re in when looking at our ancestors. Given a large range of ape species use tools it seems likely that we were too. But we don’t know what was going on.

The first time we catch a glimpse into the world of hominin tool use is when they start using stone tools. These are significant since, being made of stone, they preserve well.

The first such stone industry is the “Oldowan” named after Olduvai Gorge where they were first discovered. However, Olduvai Gorge isn’t the oldest example of these tools – finds from elsewhere has pushed the date for the Oldowan back to 2.6 million years ago!

The first stone tools were likely made by Homo habilis or some other early species of the Homo genus such as Homo rudolfensis.

The industry contains cores, flakes and hammers – the basic ingredients for a stone tool. Take a rock “core” and hit it with a rock “hammer” and you knock off the flake.

For the longest time it was thought that the core itself was the main goal of this process. By knocking off flakes they could reshape the core until it was something useful.

However, modern research suggests that it is actually the flakes the hominins were trying to get at. These fragments of flint would’ve been very sharp and handy for cutting flesh or other materials.

The interesting thing about this method is that is (a) a very fast and efficient method of getting a cutting surface and (b) doesn’t require that much intelligence. These two points seem to be in conflict – would not an intelligent being seek out the most efficient method?

Indeed, Oldowan-type tools are used for millions of years, even alongside more advanced technology. Cultures which produced spears also still made and used these flakes.

Thus it’s hard to infer whether early Homo habilis was intelligent and being efficient or just (relatively) stupid and basic. This is an issue I’ve discussed before.

Those arguing in favour of intelligence point to the fact that some of the features present in later tools appear during the Oldowan in a more basic form. Some tools are allegedly “pre-prepared,” a technique thought not to arise for another million years or two.

People who try and suggest they weren’t that clever point out that (a) these “developed” features appear; they weren’t present from the beginning and (b) when they do appear they are more basic than later.

The evidence does seem to be pointing to the latter, although with new discoveries being continuously made this could change any day now.

At any rate, this doesn’t mean Homo habilis was a complete moron. The Oldowan technique, whilst simple, still requires several years of teaching before a chimp can do it. Even then they aren’t half as good as our ancestors were.

3 thoughts on “The first stone tools: The Oldowan Industry

  1. Pingback: How to make an Oldowan flake – Friday Factoid « EvoAnth

  2. Pingback: Did Australopithecus make stone tools? « EvoAnth

  3. Pingback: Chimp makes stone tools | EvoAnth

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