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9.6: Early Tool Use and Technology

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    Early Stone Age Technology (ESA)

    The marks the beginning of recognizable technology as made by our human ancestors. Stone-tool (or lithic) technology is defined by the fracturing of rocks and the manufacture of tools through a process called knapping. The Stone Age lasted for more than 3 million years and is broken up into chronological periods called the Early (ESA), Middle (MSA), and Later Stone Ages (LSA). Each period is further broken up in different techno-complexes, as explained below. This section focuses on the earliest tools associated with ESA. The ESA spanned the largest technological time period of human innovation from over 3 million years ago to around 300,000 years ago and is associated almost entirely with hominin species prior to modern Homo sapiens. As the ESA advanced, stone tool makers (known as knappers) began to change the ways they detached flakes and eventually were able to shape artifacts into functional tools. These advances in technology go together with the developments in human evolution and cognition, dispersal of populations across the African continent and the world, and climatic changes.

    In order to understand the ESA, it is important to consider some definitions. A is a term encompassing multiple assemblages (collections of artifacts) that share similar traits in terms of artifact production and morphology. Not all assemblages are exactly the same within each techno-complex: one can have multiple phases and traditions at different sites (Lombard et al. 2012). However, there is an overarching commonality between them. Within stone tool assemblages, both flakes or cores (the rocks from which flakes are removed) are used as tools. are tools that are shaped to have functional edges. It is important to note that the information presented here is a small fraction of what is known about the ESA, and there are many ongoing debates and discoveries within the archaeological discipline.

    Currently, the oldest known stone tools, which form the techno-complex the Lomekwian, date to 3.3 mya (Harmand et al. 2015; Toth 1985). They were found at a site called Lomekwi 3 in Kenya. This techno-complex is the most recently defined and pushed back the oldest known date for lithic technology. There is only one known site thus far and, due to the age of the site, it is associated with species prior to Homo, such as Kenyanthropus platyops. Flakes were produced through indirect percussion, whereby the knappers held a rock and hit it against another rock resting on the ground. The pieces are very chunky and do not display the same fracture patterns as seen in later techno-complexes. Lomekwian knappers likely aimed to get a sharp-edged piece on a flake, which would have been functional, although the specific function is currently unknown.

    Stone tool use, however, is not only understood through the direct discovery of the tools. Cut marks on fossilized animal bones may illuminate the functionality of stone tools. In one controversial study in 2010, researchers argued that cut marks on a pair of animal bones from Dikika (Ethiopia), dated to 3.4 mya, were from stone tools. The discoverers suggested that they be more securely associated, temporally, with Au. afarensis. However, others have noted that these marks are consistent with teeth marks from crocodiles and other carnivores.

    The Oldowan techno-complex is far more established in the scientific literature (Leakey 1971). It is called the Oldowan because it was originally discovered in Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania, but the oldest assemblage is from Gona in Ethiopia, dated to 2.6 mya (Semaw 2000). The techno-complex is defined as a core and flake industry. Like the Lomekwian, there was an aim to get sharp-edged flakes, but this was achieved through a different production method. Knappers were able to actively hold or manipulate the core being knapped, which they could directly hit using a hammerstone. This technique is known as free-hand percussion, and it demonstrates an understanding of fracture mechanics. It has long been argued that the Oldowan hominins were skillful in tool manufacture.

    Because Oldowan knapping requires skill, earlier researchers have attributed these tools to members of our genus, Homo. However, some have argued that these tools are in more direct association with hominins in the genera described in this chapter (Figure 9.23).

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Some scholars believe that some genera explored in this chapter were capable of producing more complex stone tools (Oldowan).

    Invisible Tool Manufacture and Use

    The vast majority of our understanding of these early hominins comes from fossils and reconstructed paleoenvironments. It is only from 3 mya when we can start “looking into their minds” and lifestyles by analyzing their manufacture and use of stone tools. However, the vast majority of tool use in primates (and, one can argue, in humans) is not with durable materials like stone. All of our extant great ape relatives have been observed using sticks, or leaves, or other materials for some secondary purpose (to wade across rivers, to “fish” for termites, or to absorb water for drinking). It is possible that the majority of early hominin tool use and manufacture may be invisible to us because of this preservation bias.

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