Humans begin to create

A small selection of humanity's earliest technologies

Olduvai stone chopping tool
British Museum

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.

The flakes could also have been used as small knives for light-duty tasks.

To some people this artefact might appear crude; how can we even be certain that it is humanly made and not just bashed in rock falls or by trampling animals?

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
British Museum

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.

Tool-making began in East Africa about 2.4 million years ago. Instead of just picking up sticks or finding stones with sharp edges early humans began to shape the tools they needed.

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.

"bâton percé" with horse engraving
c. 15,000 BC
Le Soucy, Dordogne, France
Royal Ontario Museum

These enigmatic objects first described by French archaeologists were originally thought to be marks of status - a "bâton de commandement".

Although the term used by modern French archaeologists - the "pierced rod" is now descriptive, the function is most likely thought to be an atlal, or spear-thrower. But still, no-one is really sure!

Sickle
Pre-Pottery Neolithic B, 9000 years ago
Nahal Hemar cave
The Israel Museum, Jerusalem

One of the main factors in the transition to agriculture was the accumulation of food-production techniques, especially the means of gathering and processing wild cereals.

This included the introduction of sickles. This 9000 years old sickle, found in Nahal Hemar cave, Jordan Valley, is the world's oldest complete Sickle.

Handaxe
Palaeolithic, Portchester Castle
English Heritage

A Paleolithic, bifacial handaxe, it is broad at the base, with the tapering broken to a top. Paleolithic, can also be called Old Stone Age. It is considered to be dated around 500,000 to 10,000 years old.

This example is a style known as Acheulean. The name is taken from the name of a site named Saint Acheil, near Amiens in northern France, and is used to refer to a range of Lower Paleolithic tool-making traditions found widely across Afro-Eurasia.

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.

Anthropomorphic vessel
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.

The Baden-Vuˇcedol Culture, who existed mainly in what is now Hungary and had already achieved Bronze Age technology by the transitional period known as the Chalcolithic, were a source of innovations.

By this time, four-wheeled wagons were in use, with cattle used as draft animals. Like other agricultural cultures, they venerated an earth mother or fertility goddess.

The museum’s collection includes a vessel with a human-like form, the only known example of its kind. Its handles are shaped like raised arms, and breasts can be seen on the body.

Fishhooks
Mesolithic, c. 9600–5500 BCE
Neues Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Fish were occasionally eaten in the Upper Palaeolithic, but it was only in the Mesolithic era that fishing became an important part of human food-gathering activities.

Thanks to abundant bodies of water, conditions in northeast Germany were ideal. A surprising number of fishhooks, similar in form to those used today, have been found in the sediments of the Lake of Pritzerbe and in other sites in the Mark of Brandenburg.

Fishing was also done from the bank or from dugout canoes using harpoons or spears, and catch fences and nets were also used. There is also evidence of intensive fishing in northern Germany during the Neolithic.

Pot with Whorl Design
10501 BCE - 301 BCE, Japanese
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

This pot dates to the middle of the Jomon period (c. 3000–2000 BC), which was Japan's Neolithic era. Jomon translates to "vines or cords," and the period gets its name from the swirling decorative motifs often found on earthenware storage and cooking vessels produced during that time.

Like most examples of Jomon ceramics, Pot with Whorl Design is fashioned from unwashed clay and still contains pebbles, shells, and bits of gravel. Jomon potters aimed to work with the natural elements and thus made no effort to remove them.

Instead of using a potter's wheel, the artisans employed a hand-building method of layering coil upon coil of soft clay and molding vessels from the bottom up. As was the case in many other Neolithic societies, women likely produced these early ceramic pieces.

Pointed Bone
3801 BC - 2501 BC, Tarxien Temples
National Museum of Archaeology, Malta

Pointed worked bone indicates that this material was used to produce a variety of tools. It was most probably used to incise the decoration on pottery, stone and also for sewing cloth.

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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