Human evolution; sticks and stones (Introduction)

by David Turell @, Thursday, January 11, 2018, 20:25 (6 days ago) @ David Turell

A review of early human tool making:

"It’s a story that begins around 3 million years ago at a place called Olduvai Gorge. Here skeletal remains of Australopithecus, an early apelike hominid, were recovered, alongside associated assemblages of worked stone. These early tools are usually labeled pebble or cobble tools because they appear to have been struck only enough times to create a single sharp edge. So these early tools were really very basic. Yet for Australopithecus, whose diet comprised scavenged meat, they were undoubtedly a step up from pulling apart a carcass with their bare hands, and allowed for the scoring of the hide, severing flesh, and the breaking and crushing of bones to release marrow.

"Then, around 1.9 million years ago, Homo habilis arrives on the archaeological scene, shortly followed, at around 1.2 million years ago, by Homo erectus. We now start to talk of hominins—members of the human clade—defined against the wider classification of hominid, which contained more apelike members of the genus, such as Australopithecus africanus. We tend to call the worked flints from this period Acheulean. In some ways, it was at this point that the Stone Age was born, as the incontrovertible evidence of stones that had been altered by human endeavor, associated with geological deposits of known age, forced a reconsideration of the traditional biblical narrative of how we were created.


"These beautifully worked flints show obvious signs of repeated striking to work a core down to a finished axe that has sharp edges on two sides converging on a tip, but with a “hold” at its base or distal end. What is so mesmerizing about them is that, written into their fracture lines, one can see the consciously made decisions and the cognitive processes of design as the lower Palaeolithic knapper conceived the desired shape and form. Here was something truly “human.”


"The end of the Acheulean industry broadly overlaps with the emergence of Homo neanderthalensis and Homo sapiens between 100,000 and 125,000 years ago. While artistic and symbolic representations were perhaps beyond their consciousness, their burial practices and other rituals are evidence of a capacity for abstract thought and a degree of self-awareness.

"Hand axes continued to be standard fare, but the period is also characterized by what we call “scrapers”—small hand-held flints around the blunt side of which the index finger is wrapped to create an effective cutting tool. These scrapers were almost certainly used in the preparation of hides, and the remarkable resilience of both neanderthalensis and sapiens in the face of climatic variation suggests that more sophisticated protective clothing was being produced.

" Homo neanderthalensis is thought to have died out at around 40,000 B.C., at the beginning of what was an extremely cold period for Europe. From here on, from the upper Palaeolithic into the Mesolithic, stone tool manufacture is characterized by much variation, innovation, and rapid development. Not only were the stone tools more sophisticated but they were also used to create bone tools such as awls and needles. Both suggest further developments in clothing and the likelihood that composite garments were stitched together for a tighter and more ergonomic fit. Without those needles and custom-fit lines we might never as a species have survived that cold snap.


"The key technological development in this period is the evidence for hafting—the fixing of a spearhead or arrowhead onto the end of a stick. The evidence comes not from the excavation of complete weapons—wooden shafts with blades attached—but from the shape of the worked flints and the presence of side and corner notches at their base. These indentations cut into the flints would provide purchase for a length of cord used to bind the blade to the stick. There has been a long-standing debate as to whether, as early as the Mousterian industry, projectile points were hafted, but recently excavations at Kathu Pan in South Africa have recovered a number of stone points whose tips exhibit fracture types that indicate impact rather than scraping and sawing. Furthermore, modifications near the base of these points were consistent with hafting. The scientific dating from the site proposes a date range centering around 500,000 years ago. This is an incredible 200,000 years earlier than conventionally thought and forces us to rethink man as hunter rather than hunted at a much earlier period in our evolutionary models.


" I would love to be able to tell the parallel evolutionary story of stick development since the lower Palaeolithic, for it’s almost inconceivable that Australopithecus, Homo habilis, erectus, neanderthalensis and sapiens did not develop this technology to the same degree of sophistication as they had stone-tool technology. But because of wood’s inability to survive in the archaeological record, it will forever be a story that remains untold and one merely hypothesized by the daydreaming of experimental archaeologists such as myself."

Comment: Whole article is worth reviewing to see the development of our thinking species.

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