A small selection of humanity's earliest technologies
Olduvai stone chopping tool
Made nearly two million years ago, stone tools such as this are the first known technological invention. This one is the oldest objects in the British Museum. It comes from an early human campsite in Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania. This and other tools are scientifically dated to about 1.8 million years ago.
Using another hard stone as a hammer, the maker has knocked flakes off both sides of a basalt (volcanic lava) pebble so that they intersect to form a sharp edge. This could be used to chop branches from trees, cut meat from large animals or smash bones for marrow fat – an essential part of the early human diet.
A close look reveals that the edge is formed by a deliberate sequence of skillfully placed blows of more or less uniform force. Many objects of the same type, made in the same way, occur in groups called assemblages which are occasionally associated with early human remains.
By contrast, natural forces strike randomly and with variable force; no pattern, purpose or uniformity can be seen in the modifications they cause.
Stone chopping tools
Walking upright on two legs enabled our earliest ancestors to search for food throughout the day when it was too hot for other animals to hunt. For some four to five million years this ensured survival, but small body size and lack of speed, fangs and claws evened up the competition with other predators.
Tools which could also have been used as weapons gave early human ancestors a new advantage. In these early artefacts it is possible to see the first spark of creative genius that set humans apart from other animals and gradually enabled us to adapt to different, often changing conditions all over the world.
The chopping tools featured here are made from quartzite and basalt cobbles. They are sometimes referred to as Oldowan and were found by Louis Leakey on his first expedition to Olduvai Gorge in 1931.
The tool is a general-purpose hand-axe. A hand-axe is a complete tool used for cutting or chopping. It is bifacial, and therefore worked on both sides, with a cutting edge all the way around.
Experimental work carried out on objects such as this example shows they are very effective as butchery knives.
Neolithic, 4 – 3 millenium BCE
Neues Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Europe in the 4th and 3rd millennia was characterized by a high number of cultural groups, separated according to region and time period, and often (since no ethnic names survive from this pre-literate period) named after characteristic vessels or significant archaeological sites.