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.
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?
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).
© Trustees of the British Museum
Want to join the conversation?
- 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?(10 votes)
- 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)
- 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)
- 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)
- Why are there so few art works from African cultures? How many cultures are in African?(4 votes)
- One last note to add to this excellent response, we do hope to add more African content soon. In fact, we should have new video on a Yoruba sculpture in the next day or two so please check back.(3 votes)
- when was the first technolgy made(4 votes)
- 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)
- 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)
- How did it help in the involvement of art? Although we know know about their tools used.(4 votes)
- It's relevant to art because it helps show us a timeline of human development. It shows us that humans had been making things for a very long time, but only such objects that served a purpose.(2 votes)
- How can you say the earth is something billion years old when there is evidence for only 6,000 year of earth as a planet ?(0 votes)
- Why weren't they through out the whole world?(2 votes)
- Because humans originated in Africa, so the oldest tech is likewise from Africa. Primitive tools have been found in other countries, of course, but they are dated much later.(5 votes)
- are there study cards or anything to help us during a test?(3 votes)
- It might be beneficial to just write essential information on 3x5 index cards. That way you can study with yourself or a partner. Names of places and dates are standard, as well as the significance of what you are studying. If it were about ancient stone tools, then write down what purpose those tools had and why their relation to the people who used them was integral to their survival.(1 vote)
- Alongside tools for hunting, what "tools" would be for storytelling and civilization-building? June 9, 2023, 1546 UTC(3 votes)