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Our earliest technology?

Handaxe, lower paleolithic, about 1.8 million years old, found at Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania, Africa, hard green volcanic lava (phonolite), 23.8 x 10 cm © The Trustees of the British Museum
Handaxe, lower paleolithic, about 1.8 million years old, found at Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania, Africa, hard green volcanic lava (phonolite), 23.8 x 10 cm © The Trustees of the British Museum.
Made nearly two million years ago, stone tools such as this are the first known technological invention.
This chopping tool and others like it are the oldest objects in the British Museum. It comes from an early human campsite in the bottom layer of deposits in Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania. Potassium-argon dating indicates that this bed is between 1.6 and 2.2 million years old from top to bottom. This and other tools are dated to about 1.8 million years.
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.

Deliberate shaping

To some people this artifact 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.
Chopping tools and flakes from the earliest African sites were referred to as Oldowan by the archaeologist Louis Leakey. He found this example on his first expedition to Olduvai in 1931, when he was sponsored by the British Museum.
Handaxes were still in use there some 500,000 years ago, by which time their manufacture and use had spread throughout Africa, south Asia, the Middle East and Europe where they were still being made 40,000 years ago. They have even been found as far east as Korea in recent excavations. No other cultural artifact is known to have been made for such a long time across such a huge geographical range.
Handaxes are always made from stone and were held in the hand during use. Many have this characteristic teardrop or pear shape which might have been inspired by the outline of the human hand.

The beginnings of an artistic sense?

Although handaxes were used for a variety of everyday tasks including all aspects of skinning and butchering an animal or working other materials such as wood, this example is much bigger than the usual useful size of such hand held tools. Despite its symmetry and regular edges it appears difficult to use easily. As language began to develop along with tool making, was this handaxe made to suggest ideas? Does the care and craftsmanship with which it was made indicate the beginnings of the artistic sense unique to humans?
Suggested readings:
L.S.B. Leakey, Olduvai Gorge (Cambridge, University Press, 1951).
K.D. Schick and N. Schick, Making silent stones speak. Human Evolution and the Dawn of Technology (London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1993).
The British Museum logo
© Trustees of the British Museum

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  • ohnoes default style avatar for user Cyan Wind
    Is it possible for us to find some objects even older than this one? If no, would it be possible for archaeologists to ask/assume that our ancestors had created tools long time before 2 million years?
    (9 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user Josh Robertson
      It is very tough to find any objects older than stone tools because of raw materials they were made of. Stones are very long lasting opposed to bones or wood. Basically, it's been 2 million years ago when all of these raw materials were discovered. People realize when they combust a stone or any of the raw materials into smaller pieces to make any other materials if not completely blended into dust.
      (6 votes)
  • hopper cool style avatar for user Madeliv
    Would each person have their own handaxe? (Would it bear markings to identify the owner in any way or are there no signs that people were specifically attached to their tool?) Follow-up question: if there are no individual decorations, is this really "the beginnings of the artistic sense unique to humans"? If there are individual differences between the handaxes, were these made for aesthetic or practical purposes?
    (7 votes)
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    • leaf grey style avatar for user calieh.22
      Hand axes were rarely carried from location to location or used multiple times. Dried lake beds have been found with piles of hundreds of hand axes which suggests they were often seen as disposable. Thus they probably wouldn't have seen a need to mark them.
      (2 votes)
  • female robot ada style avatar for user Alex
    Why are there so few art works from African cultures? How many cultures are in African?
    (4 votes)
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  • aqualine tree style avatar for user Slenex12
    when was the first technolgy made
    (4 votes)
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  • aqualine seed style avatar for user Andrew Yang
    How durable is that material?
    2,000,000 years is a lot of time!
    It must be very strong to survive erosion and other natural forces
    (3 votes)
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    • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Moe Guantana
      I imagine that these tools were probably buried in the ground (discovered through excavation) which prevented erosion from water or air. Also, the lack of organic material in the stone itself prevented decay from microorganisms. Any organic materials attached to the original tool (twine or wood) would have turned to dust long ago.
      (5 votes)
  • old spice man green style avatar for user lynn valentine
    How did it help in the involvement of art? Although we know know about their tools used.
    (4 votes)
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  • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Toby
    Why weren't they through out the whole world?
    (2 votes)
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  • leafers sapling style avatar for user Wei Zhao
    I just wonder, could these tool be sharp enough to cut hairs or shave?
    (2 votes)
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  • leaf green style avatar for user AHowell12345
    since rock and stone are not raw materials, why aren't we finding more prehistoric tools like in riverbeds and even our own backyards? There were a lot of people whom could have had stone weapons, so why aren't we finding more, and why is it such a big deal to find one?
    (3 votes)
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    • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Chloe
      Like Mel Vandenberg said , humans where nomadic and traveled in groups . The tools and weapons would not just be anywhere . Its a big deal to find early stone tools because of the age , due to age they are harder to find . Instead of being close to the topsoil , the tools may be way underground . Then , the pressure like earthquakes and volcanoes may destroy the tools . So that may be why the stone tools might not be found in backyards and riverbeds .
      (1 vote)
  • piceratops seed style avatar for user Jacob J.
    Where could I learn every single thing about this, detailing every single word that they say. I want to know about this in completely full detail so I can fulfill my dreams of becoming an Archeologist.
    (1 vote)
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