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History of Stone Tools

Origins and evolution of
Prehistoric tool industries

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Close-up of backed-edge bladelet, a microlith made during Solutrean/Magdalenian period
Backed-edge bladelet, one of many microliths made by modern humans during the Solutrean and Magdalenian cultures. These light, small-scale tools were a revolutionary development in tool-making. Image by José-Manuel Benito Álvarez. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Stone Age Tool Technology

Stone tools designed and used by hominins during the Stone Age are commonly categorized into 'industries' (or 'cultures'), meaning styles.

These lithic industries reflect advances made by toolmakers around the world and therefore - broadly speaking - follow one after another.

However, overlap occurs at every stage.

The Stone Age spans an incomprehensibly long period of time - in total, some 3.3 million years.

During this period, evolutionary change among hominins was continuous but extremely slow, while progression in tool technology was even slower.

In fact, between 1.7 mya and 400,000 years ago, it came to a virtual standstill.

Unearthing Stone Tools

For a short guide to archaeological digs, see: Archaeology: Prehistoric & Ancient. For a short explanation of archaeological terms, see: Archaeology Glossary.

When did the History of Toolmaking Begin?

Answer: no one knows. Why not? Because the earliest tools were almost certainly fashioned out of wood, bone and other organic materials, which were easier to obtain and work with, than stone. Unfortunately, these materials don't survive as well as stone, and therefore leave fewer traces for archaeologists to find.

Nonetheless, it's safe to say that the invention of tools made from wood or animal bones predates all stone technology.

In 2010, for instance, at Dikika in Ethiopia, scientists found what they believe are marks of stone tools on animal bones dating to 3.39 million years ago, although no actual tools were discovered. The tool-makers are believed to be Australopithecus afarensis.

The First Stone Tools

The earliest tools made out of stone were recovered in 2011 from the shores of Lake Turkana in northern Kenya, and date to between 3.3 and 3.2 million years ago (mya) during the Middle Pliocene.

Until this discovery, the oldest specimens of lithic technology were Oldowan tools from Tanzania, made by Homo habilis, about 2.6 mya.

The Kenyan site, known as Lomekwi 3, has yielded several hundred tools, including sharp flakes of stone used for cutting, as well as hammers and anvils, some of which weighed more than 15 kg.

So who made these particular artifacts? Almost certainly one of the hominins of the Australopithecus genus, like Australopithecus afarensis (lived 3.9–2.9 mya), Kenyanthropus platyops, or even Australopithecus africanus (lived 3.3-2.1 mya).

They are the only pre-Homo species associated with Lake Turkana.

Up until now, none of these modern non-human primates were considered to be particularly intelligent: they had small brains and ape-like as well as human-like features.

But, as the discovery shows, these primitive ape-like beings had the cognitive and manipulative abilities to design and execute a range of useful tools.

For more about the earliest prehistoric art, which emerged during the Lower Paleolithic, see: World's Oldest art (from 540,000 BC).

Oldowan Tools

The first stone tool 'industry' created by a human species is the Oldowan.

This was a simple but widespread style of tool technology, used throughout the populated world between 2.6 mya and 1.7 mya.

It was named after the first discoveries in the Olduvai Gorge near Lake Victoria, Tanzania.

The oldest specimens, dating to 2.6 mya, are those discovered at Gona, an archaeological site in the Afar Triangle of the Ethiopian lowlands. The Afar Triangle is a geological basin which is part of the Great Rift Valley in East Africa. The region has been a valuable source of fossil specimens from the very earliest hominins.

The Gona tools are quite distinct from the Lomekwi 3 tool cache (which was made by percussive methods) and appear to mark a systematic shift in tool manufacture.

Indeed, the systematic production of sharp-edged stone tools is unknown in the archaeological record prior to the Gona finds.

Characteristics

Who Made Oldowan Tools?

Current anthropological thinking is that Oldowan tools were made by Homo habilis and by late Australopithecines. Oldowan tools did not require a much sophistication, but the industry is a major advancement in Australopithecine culture in its use of sharp edges.

Nonetheless, H. habilis were the species most closely associated with the Oldowan, and were responsible for carrying the tradition with them as they dispersed around the world. They certainly seemed to possess good knowledge of flint-knapping.

But the style wasn't invented exclusively by a single group of early humans, but came about after prolonged experimentation over hundreds of thousands of years.

Homo habilis created choppers, polyhedrons and discoids, as well as spheroids. According to the Leakeys, more than half the stone tools in the Olduvai Gorge were choppers.

What is Flint-Knapping?

Flint is a hard crystalline form of quartz that occurs in chalks and limestones. It is the main material from which stone tools are made. Flint-knapping is the shaping of this flint/quartz through a process of lithic reduction, during which the flint core is struck by a hammer-stone, causing pieces (flakes) to fall off, leading eventually to the shaping of a sharp edged tool.

Mode 1 Technology

Oldowan tools are classified as Mode 1 Tool Technology in the classification system devised by the British archaeologist Grahame Clark, in his book "World Prehistory: A New Synthesis" (1969).

Grahame Clark's Tool Modes

In 1969, British archaeologist Grahame Clark (1907-95) devised a classification system to explain the evolution of stone tool types, which is still in use today by paleoarchaeologists and prehistorians around the world. It serves as an analytical chronology of flint-knapping during the Stone Age.

Clark identified five progressive 'modes' (categories) of tools, as follows:

J.J. Shea's Lithics System

Another interesting classification system has been proposed by the American archaeologist and paleoanthropologist John Joseph Shea.

Shea's lithic mode system seeks to separate stone tool types without reference to their evolutionary features.

It consists of nine main tool categories (Modes A-I), together with eight sub-sections - in all, a total of 17 groups. The increase of categories reflects the sheer complexity of tool-making, found in the archaeological record.

[Reference: Shea, J.J., 2013. Lithic Modes A–I: A New Framework for Describing Global-Scale Variation in Stone Tool Technology Illustrated with Evidence from the East Mediterranean Levant. J. Archaeol. Method Theory 20, 151–186.]

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Acheulean Tools

Homo habilis continued making Oldowan-style tools for almost a million years, making gradual improvements along the way.

By about 1.8 mya, some Homo ergaster had begun making better tools with sharper and more effective edges. By 1.7 mya, they had improved sufficiently to constitute a separate tool making tradition, known as the Acheulean.

Facts

Who Made Acheulean Tools?

The Acheulean style of tool-making originated in Africa, thanks to Homo ergaster with perhaps some help from contemporaries like H. habilis and H. rudolfensis.

Later, from about 1.5 million years ago, it was carried to Europe, Asia and the Middle East by Homo erectus (the species of H.ergaster who migrated out of Africa).

The first signs of Acheulean tools in Europe, for instance, were hand axes discovered in Spain, dating to about 900,000 years ago.

The Asian situation is more complex. To begin with, there were very few traces of this tool tradition in this region.

For example, no hand axes (the diagnostic Acheulean artifact) were found at the important Chinese site of Zhoukoudian, or other East Asian sites occupied by H. erectus. This implied that other perishable materials had been used, like wood or bamboo.

But now, excavations in more than twenty sites in southern China have yielded a range of Acheulean axes dating back about 800,000 years, although some archaeologists are still not sure they are truly Acheulean.

Characteristics

Early Acheulean and Late Acheulean

The Acheulean tool tradition had a timespan of about one and a half million years, during which a number of improvements were made.

However, for large periods tool innovation stagnated, a situation which scientists put down to limited cognitive abilities including working memory, as well as inadequate training.

Because the tradition endured for so long, it is divided into Early Acheulean (1.76 mya to 600,000 BC) and Late Acheulean (600,000 to 200,000 BC). The latter is associated in particular with Homo heidelbergensis.

Acheulean Technology by H. heidelbergensis

Homo heidelbergensis continued making similar tools to those of H. ergaster, including bifacial stone hand axes, cleavers and carvers, as well as scrapers.

In addition, they were the first human species to use points hafted onto spear tips.

Evidence of this was recovered from Kathu Pan in South Africa, and dated to 500,000 BC.

This is believed to be the first occasion that humans combined different components to produce a single tool.

As a result, H. heidelbergensis achieved greater success in hunting and killing herd animals who could run faster than humans, and thus gave themselves better access to meat and other foods.

In Europe, hafted spear tips are common at Stone Age sites from 300,000 BC. See, for instance, the finds at La Micoque, the oldest occupied site in the Périgord.

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Mousterian Tools

During the period 300,000-200,000 BC, innovation in flint-knapping began to accelerate. Biface core tools like handaxes continued to be made, but a new style of smaller, more diverse implements was also introduced.

This is now known as the Mousterian tool culture, a Mode 3 technology.

It is the third major tool industry after the Oldowan and Acheulean styles, and is named after its type-site Le Moustier, a rock shelter in the Dordogne.

Characteristics

A Giant Leap in Cognitive Thinking

Levallois technology assumes that tool-makers have a flake in mind when they set about preparing the core. Without this cognitive ability the task becomes impossible.

In addition, considerable experience of - and skill in - flintknapping, is essential in order to execute the various steps needed to shape the intended flake and then strike it from the core.

This is why Mousterian tool culture is classified as a Mode 3 technology.

Who Invented the Levallois Technique?

That said, the Levallois method may have developed from the Acheulean culture itself. A study of the Kapthurin Formation site in Kenya, for instance, analyzed several Early and Middle Stone Age hominin sites dating to between 500,000 and 200,000 BC, and suggests that the Levallois emerged bit by bit from local Acheulean technologies.

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Châtelperronian

This much-debated tool culture - named after Châtelperron, the nearest commune to the type site known as La Grotte des Fées - is the earliest Upper Paleolithic industry in the region of Franco-Cantabrian art.

Characterized by its denticulate stone tools, it has been widely cited as evidence for the presence of complex 'symbolic' behaviour among the late Neanderthal populations of Europe.

Unfortunately, new studies indicate that so-called 'Châtelperronian' artifacts may be no more than a confusion of Mousterian and Aurignacian layers. Alternatively, the new style resulted from Neanderthals copying the culture of modern humans who had settled in the surrounding area, than inventing it themselves.

The debate over Châtelperronian culture is part of the wider debate about the cognitive capabilities of H. neanderthalensis. Our view of the species has fluctuated from mindless brute to empathetic cousin and now rests somewhere in between.

No one disputes the complexity of Neanderthal tool-making and overall culture. Yet even after 200,000 years familiarity with European conditions, the species was barely able to maintain itself - a predicament which is hardly suggestive of a forward-thinking hominin.

To make matters worse, Neanderthals are typically compared only with modern humans, whose successes upon arrival in Europe were instant and wide-ranging.

Indeed, over the following 30,000 years, Cro-Magnons (moderns in Europe) revolutionized several aspects of Stone Age culture, including tool-making, hunting, clothes manufacture, and possibly language.

In addition, they dazzled their contemporaries and descendants with their cave painting and sculpture.

Upper Paleolithic Technologies

Migration of modern Homo sapiens out of Africa began about 200,000 years ago, but it is believed that numbers remained low until 100,000 years ago. However, they reached China no later than 80,000 BC.

After this, came the largest wave of migrants, which left Africa around 70,000 BC, reaching Australia about 50,000 BC, and Europe no later than 54,000 BC.

Early tool industries associated with modern humans included the Emiran culture - noted for its Emireh point - which appeared in the Middle East about 60,000 BC.

This developed into the Middle Eastern Ahmarian culture and its blade and bladelet-knapping techniques, about 45,000 BC.

In Europe, modern humans introduced four different Upper Paleolithic tool industries, whose dates vary confusingly. For the sake of simplicity alone, we adopt the following chronology:

These Upper Paleolithic toolkits revolutionized Stone Age tool technology.

For example, they introduced two new classes of tool:

In addition, they offered more diversity than before, including: a wider range of implements, new forms of microliths for spears and arrows, increased specialization, more standardization of production, and faster innovation.

Plus, new materials - bone, antler, ivory and wood - were used to make specialized tools like burins, awls, needles and scrapers.

The rate of progress shown by these innovations indicates a different cognitive toolkit to that of H. neanderthalensis.

It also hints at improved communication between craftspeople and trainees, possibly through the use of language.

Aurignacian Tools

Aurignacian culture was archaeology's first Mode 4 technology. Its main innovation was blade tools. This involved detaching long rectangular flakes from a prepared stone core, to form blades.

Not only were these blade tools better at cutting, their long shape made it easier to attach them to a handle, which provided greater leverage and efficiency.

The culture was named after la Grotte d'Aurignac in the Haute-Garonne department in southwestern France, where the first artifacts were recovered in 1860.

The Aurignacian is famous for two unique examples of paleolithic art: namely, the Chauvet Cave paintings of lions, rhinoceroses, horses and bison; and the extraordinary ivory sculpture known as the Lion Man of Hohlenstein Stadel.

Gravettian Tools

Gravettian culture is noted for its tanged tools, a diagnostic marker for the Early Gravettian of Western Europe.

Excavations at Maisières-Canal and Station de l'Hermitage, in Belgium, also reveal the importance of hafted butchering knives in the toolkits of the Gravettian hunter-gatherers.

The focus on small tools, whether made of stone, antler or bone, is illustrated by one of their applications for which the Gravettian is famous - portable sculptures of nude female figures.

These so-called 'venus figurines' have been unearthed in locations across Europe, from southern France to Siberia. Examples include: the Venus of Willendorf (28,000 BC) and the Venus of Moravany (21,000 BC).

Solutrean Tools

Magdalenian Tools

The Magdalenian tool industry exemplifies Mode 5 technology. It is noted in particular for its small, sharp tools: namely, geometric microliths - consisting of stone blades made into crescents, triangles, or other geometric shapes.

These would almost certainly have served as arrowheads as well as projectile points for spears and harpoons.

Early Magdalenian implements include a range of different sized blades and scrapers, while the Middle Magdalenian is marked by the appearance of denticulated microliths. Late Magdalenian tools include harpoons made of bone, antler and ivory.

Magdalenian tool culture is named after the type-site of Abri de la Madeleine in the Dordogne, where the first artifacts were found in 1863.

At Creswell Crags in the British Midlands, currently the home of the northernmost parietal art in Western Europe, Magdalenian toolmakers developed the Creswellian culture, characterized by trapezoidal backed blades called Cheddar points - as well as variations known as Creswell points.

In addition to its tool industry, the Magdalenian is famous for the paintings and engravings at Altamira Cave and Lascaux Cave, as well as the sublime bison reliefs at Tuc d'Audoubert.

Mesolithic & Neolithic Tools

During the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods (10,000-2,000 BC), modern humans swapped their hunter-gatherer culture for a life of farming and animal husbandry.

This new life needed new stone tools, which were produced not by knapping and flaking but by grinding and polishing.

Such implements included adzes, axes, chisels and gouges (cutting chisels), many of which were essential for land clearance when creating their agricultural settlements.

During the 4th millennium BC, the smelting of copper and later bronze, resulted in the use of metal as the primary material for tools and weapons.

After three million years, the Stone Age had finally ended, and a new era of human civilization was about to begin.

For more about the chronology of Stone Age culture, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (540,000 BC).

References

(1) Harmand, Sonia et al; (20 May 2015). "3.3-million-year-old stone tools from Lomekwi 3, West Turkana, Kenya". Nature. 521 (7552): 310–315.
(2) Tryon, Christian A.; McBrearty, Sally; Texier, Pierre-Jean (December 2005). "Levallois Lithic Technology from the Kapthurin Formation, Kenya: Acheulean Origin and Middle Stone Age Diversity". African Archaeological Review. 22 (4): 199–229.
(3) Yonas Beyene, Shigehiro Katoh, Giday WoldeGabriel and Berhane Asfaw. "The characteristics and chronology of the earliest Acheulean at Konso, Ethiopia." January 28, 2013. PNAS. 110 (5) 1584-1591
(4) Richter, Daniel et al; (June 2017). "The age of the hominin fossils from Jebel Irhoud, Morocco, and the origins of the Middle Stone Age". Nature. 546 (7657): 293–296.
(5) Higham, Tom (2021). The World Before Us: How Science is Revealing a New Story of Our Human Origins. Penguin Viking. pp. 35–36. ISBN 978-0-241-44067-4.
(6) Mellars, Paul (2010). "Neanderthal symbolism and ornament manufacture: The bursting of a bubble?". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 107 (47): 20147–20148.
(7) "The earliest unequivocally modern humans in southern China." Wu Liu, et al. Nature volume 526, pages 696–699 (2015).
(8) Mathieu Langlais, Anthony Sécher, Solène Caux, Vincent Delvigne, Laura Gourc, et al. "Lithic toolkits: A Metronome of the evolution of the Magdalenian in southwest France (19,000–14,000 cal BP)." Quaternary International, Elsevier, 2016, 414, p.92-107.
(9) de Sonneville-Bordes, D.; Perrot, J. (1956). "Lexique typologique du Paléolithique supérieur" (Typological lexicon of the Upper Paleolithic). Bulletin de la Société préhistorique de France. 53 (7): 408–412.

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