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The evolution of stone tools. Source: andrey gonchar / Adobe Stock.

Taking a ‘Knapp’ With Our Ancient Ancestors - Stone Tools Through the Ages


The process of creating lithic tools took our hominin species millions of years to perfect. However, we often dismiss stone tools as simplistic primitive technology.

The mastering of stone knapping techniques (the act of shaping stone tools) allowed humans to create a plethora of stone devices ranging from hunting weapons to farming tools. Stone tools were so essential that the practice continued well past the Neolithic age, especially in places like Mesoamerica until the late 17th century.

The moment our hominin ancestors created stone tools; we became the shapers of our destiny. However, can one say that tool use is uniquely a human trait? After all, chimpanzees, as well as many other animal species, also use stone tools for foraging, hunting, and grooming. Did primates learn this from humans or was it the other way around?

Many other species utilize tools. According to researcher Christina J. Campbell and her colleagues, tool use among monkeys and apes has been thoroughly observed. Of the most interesting are the tools used by chimpanzees.

Chimpanzees use stones and wood to crack nuts. Chimps use stones to dig holes to extract roots. Chimpanzees also use sticks to mine for termites as well as craft crude spears to hunt other mammals hidden in trees, as mentioned by Campbell et al, “… Pruetz and Bertonali report that chimpanzees in Senegal probe with sticks into holes to capture trapped vertebrate prey”.

Chimp using stick as a tool to eat ants. (Mike R / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Chimp using stick as a tool to eat ants. (Mike R / CC BY-SA 3.0)

The cognitive abilities in the primate cousins have shown the possibility that humans may not be the only ones who benefit from the use of stone and wooden tools. Though it may be alarming that primates use stone and wood tools for hunting and foraging, it is still crude compared to the robust history and relationship that our hominin ancestors have with stone tools.

Mode I: Oldowan Tool Industry. Australopithecus or Homo? – 3.3 million years ago BC to 1.6 million years ago BC.

As stated in Spencer Larson’s textbook, Our Origins-Discovering Physical Anthropology, the earliest stone tools that were discovered, in 1978 by paleoanthropologists Mary and Louis Leakey in the Olduvai gorge in East Africa, dated to the Early Pleistocene between 2.6 – 1.6 million years ago.

Mary and Louis Leaky claimed these stones to be part of the Oldowan Complex of the Lower Palaeolithic. Their opinion was that these were the earliest signs of hominin culture ever to exist.

The stone tools discovered consisted of basic choppers, hammerstones, and deliberate flakes, used for slicing animal flesh. Though very basic, it was a sign of hominin cognition learning to manipulate the materials around them for a practical purpose.

Stone tool known as an Oldowan chopper. (Locutus Borg / CC BY-SA 2.5)

Stone tool known as an Oldowan chopper. (Locutus Borg / CC BY-SA 2.5)

Given the proximity of the stone tools to the Homo habilis discovery in 1960, Tanzania, H. habilis was given credit for being the first tool user.

For the longest time, Australopithecines were perceived as not smart enough to create stone tools. However, when the discovery of 3.3 million year old stone tools and cut marks on fossilized animal bone remains, found in Dikika, Ethiopia in 2010, was made Shannon McPherron and her team mentioned, “our discovery extends by approximately 800,000 years the antiquity of stone tools and stone-tool assisted consumption of ungulates by hominins…”.

Additionally, in 2015, further discoveries were made by Sonia Harmand and her team in Lomekwi, Kenya, also dating to 3.3 million years ago, predating Oldowan by 700,000 years. With these discoveries, it proved that Australopithecines were indeed able to create lithic tools.

Mode II: Acheulean Industry Tools. Homo erectus’s Hand Ax Approach to Life - 1.5 million years ago BC to 150,000 BC.

The term Acheulean was named after the Saint Acheul site in France to which various hand axe artifacts were discovered in 1859. The Acheulean tools differed from the hammerstones and choppers made from Australopithecus or H. habilis. As the hominins continued to adapt, so did their lithic tools.

The hand ax was the most prominent tool used by the resilient Homo erectus who spread throughout Africa, Europe, and Asia, and parts of Indonesia sometime 1.5 million years ago. They then mysteriously disappeared from the fossil records around 130,000 years ago.

With H. erectus’s higher cranial capacity, their tools and social societies may have become more sophisticated. There is also a strong belief that H. erectus may have also discovered fire, allowing them to survive in the harshest of conditions. The stone tools used by H. erectus showed precision.

The stone tools were more substantial, larger, and notably tear-shaped. Another notable difference was the utilization of large flakes from the core of the hand ax. These flakes were also retouched, possibly for hide scrapers and bone and woodcarvers.

Along with H. erectus, was also Homo ergaster and Homo heidlebergensis, who were also associated with the Mode II Acheulean industry. One tool made most famous was a pink quartz hand ax found along with 30 other individuals from a 430,000 year old death pit at a site in Sim de os Huesos, Spain. Professor Eudald Carbonell and his team who discovered the tools and remains believed that this was “…the first evidence of ritual behavior and symbolism in the human species…”.

The significance of such a find reflected the progression and advancement of cognitive thinking, which revealed socio-cultural advancement. Academics and researchers such as Chris Stringer suggest that the abstract thinking brought forth from stone tools and culture may have also given rise to the concept of the afterlife.

Mode III: Neanderthal Levallois Techniques and the Mousterian Tool Industry - 100,000 BC to 40,000 BC.

Mode III Mousterian tool industry spanned between 100,000 years ago to about 40,000 years ago. When discussing the Mode III tool industry, there are two terms which are synonymously used. The first is Mousterian, which comes from a French site revealing two rock-shelters in Peyzac-le-Moustier located in Dordogne, France. This term is used to describe the placement of the lithic industry.

The second is the Levallois technique, which was based on finds discovered in Levallois-Perret of France in the 19th century. Levallois is a term used to describe a specific method in creating a lithic tool.

According to Whittaker, “…Mousterian industries all emphasize flake tools, especially scrapers…”. The sophistication that was revealed in the tool remains demonstrated by the significant advancements that Neanderthals achieved. The Levallois technique to which Neanderthals perfected revealed to be more challenging to produce than the Acheulean tools of their H. erectus predecessors.

Neanderthals made stone tools using the Levallois technique to make a sharp point. (Archaeodontosaurus / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Neanderthals made stone tools using the Levallois technique to make a sharp point. (Archaeodontosaurus / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Their process involved striking flakes from a prepared lithic core resembling the shell of a tortoise. Once it was shaped, the altered core's platform would finally be hit, resulting in a sizeable lithic flake separating in one large tear-shaped edge.

This revealed that Neanderthals needed an immense amount of preplanning, foresight, and cognitive intelligence to execute such a task. Neanderthals used this technique to produce various kinds of scrapers. Other tools were hand axes, knives, and spearheads. In further advancements of these tools, the technologies created by Neanderthals also incorporated the use of pitch for gluing their spears to the wooden staffs, as Paul Kozowyk and his researchers proved in 2016.

The advancement of stone tools, included Neanderthals incorporating the use of pitch for gluing their spears to the wooden staffs. (Image Credit: Paul Kozowyk/ The Seeker )

The advancement of stone tools, included Neanderthals incorporating the use of pitch for gluing their spears to the wooden staffs. (Image Credit: Paul Kozowyk/ The Seeker )

Although Neanderthals revealed a cognitive sophistication and adaptability that was unprecedented by any other hominin, there was also a darker side. One such side was the evidence of cannibalism, as explored by Helene Rougier and her researchers at the Troisieme Caverne of Goyet in 2015. Rougier and her team examined the skeletal remains of 99 Neanderthal remains to which “…nearly a third of the Neanderthal specimens bear cutmarks…”.

Additionally, The Goyet Caves yielded multiple Neandertal skeletal bones remains, specifically femurs, that were first processed from carcasses, then deliberately repurposed to be used as retoucher tools for lithic edge refinement.

Whether this was a ritualistic practice or a deliberate necessity for survival remains to be unknown. Regardless of the reasons, these remains still reveal potential insight into Neanderthal cognitive abilities and potential social and cultural mortuary practices they may have held.

Mode IV Aurignacian Tool Industry- 50,000 to 26,000 years ago.

Many researchers have questioned what exactly happened to the Neanderthals as the emergence of modern Homo sapiens came to be. Whether they interbred or whether they were displaced and killed by the H. sapiens will remain a mystery. However, with the global expansion of H. sapiens across Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East, came another lithic technological breakthrough in techniques and tool variation that was explicitly designed for the H. sapien nomadic way of life.

Though scrapers, hand axes, and blades were still produced, the sophistication came in the efficiency in the processing of the stones they used. The period to which this technology was placed was in the Upper Paleolithic.

One of the most defining features of Aurignacian stone tools was the creation of lithic blades as opposed to sharpened flakes from prepared cores. Another aspect to the lithic working was also the detail and precision placed in making other tools from bones and antler points.

Mode V: The Microlithic Tool Industry - 35,000 BC to 3,000 BC.

As time continued and H. sapiens began to spread, the further precision regarding the continual manufacturing of further specific tools began to happen. The production of Microliths, or lithic tools measuring a centimeter or so in length for thinner spearheads and arrowheads. These may have also consisted of retouched arrowheads and blades due to a lack of resources, or for the sake of being efficient.

Aurignacian stone tools – Microliths. (Th. Fink Veringen / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Aurignacian stone tools – Microliths. (Th. Fink Veringen / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Microliths became very prominent throughout Asia, Africa, and Europe. They were now part of a more complex system of spear and arrow manufacturing.

What was initially made to be a worked flake fastened to a shaft was now streamlined by thousands of years of innovation. Microliths would be fastened to wooden shafts by utilization of bone, resin, fiber, and pitch to create a more accurate, flexible, and durable weapon.

Also, the weapons made that consisted of microliths now served specific purposes rather than a generalized tool. Such weapons were the creation of the harpoons, light javelin-like projectiles, and differing arrowhead designs for differing fauna.

Neolithic Tool Industry. The New Stone Age - 12,000 BC to 6,500 BC.

With the development of farming emerging in the Near East, the changes in lithic technology started to take on another development. Though there was still evidence of lithic tool use for hunting purposes, several tool designs were started for use in farming.

Grinding stones, manos, and mortars emerged to process farmed grains and wheat. Also, the techniques further refined from flaking to more precise methods of sharpening and shaping lithic tools.

Grounding stones from Neolithic used to grind up grains. (José-Manuel Benito Álvarez / CC BY-SA 2.5)

Grounding stones from Neolithic used to grind up grains. (José-Manuel Benito Álvarez / CC BY-SA 2.5)

In the years to come, the creation of bronze and iron tools would soon become prevalent in hunting and farming; however, it would not signal the end of stone tool use. Given how rare and expensive the creation of bronze and metal tools were, stone tools for hunting, weapons, and sickles were still used in households due to their practical and accessible nature.

This period also revealed the beginnings of animal domestication. Other forms of tools began to develop, including the creation of pottery and other cultural material items. However, not all cultures around the world developed these tools and material goods in the same order as listed.

Still, other cultures around the world continued to perfect and adjust lithic tools, as seen in North America with the extensive use of Clovis technology, as well as in the Americas later with the Mesoamerican prismatic blades.

Tool Use in the Americas from Clovis to the Aztecs - 10,000 BC to 1521 AD.

Although there is evidence of pre-Clovis groups inhabiting the Americas, one of the best examples tool use specification was the Paleoamerican Clovis culture and their tools for hunting megafauna. The name Clovis originated from the discovery of a spearhead in Blackwater Locality near Clovis, New Mexico in the 1920s.

While the actual Paleo people who used these tools remain mysterious, the prominence of the Clovis spear design is found predominantly in the Americas. As addressed by Whittiker, “Clovis points have been found alongside the butchered bones of mammoths… they also hunted bison, horses, camels, mastodons…”.

Clovis projectile points. (Bill Whittaker / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Clovis projectile points. (Bill Whittaker / CC BY-SA 3.0)

The range in which Clovis technology was in use spanned between 12,500 BC to roughly 10,000 BC. However, Clovis technology disappeared at the same time of the megafauna demise. This does not necessarily mean that the Clovis people died out as well, they may have continued to adapt their hunting methods and change their toolset to survive.

As further agricultural advances happened throughout the Americas, further use of lithic tools developed as well. Intricate trade networks also developed. One such massive trade route, regarding the trade of obsidian blades, can be found in the river trade networks of mysterious Cahokia. A civilization which may have controlled the river trade routes from Canada to Mexico itself.

The Mesoamerican techniques of obsidian blade production were some of the most elaborate in the world. Their production of prismatic blades, long narrow blades, contained a single long sharp edge and were used for several purposes.

Obsidian prismatic blade fragment from the ancient Maya site of Chunchucmil, Yucatan. A prismatic blade is a long, narrow, specialized stone flake tool with a sharp edge, like a small razor blade. (David R. Hixson / CC BY-SA 2.5)

Obsidian prismatic blade fragment from the ancient Maya site of Chunchucmil, Yucatan. A prismatic blade is a long, narrow, specialized stone flake tool with a sharp edge, like a small razor blade. (David R. Hixson / CC BY-SA 2.5)

Other techniques involved indirect percussion, which sometimes involved two artisans to prepare, bipolar reduction, to which an anvil stone and a hammerstone would be needed, as well as many other techniques to continue refining and creating stone tools.

Stone tool use in the Americas continued until the first contact with the Spanish, to which the Aztecs used obsidian Atlatls and wooden swords lined with obsidian blades known as the Macuahuitl against them during the post-classic period in 1521. Even after colonization, many Mesoamerican groups used stone tools for farming and household uses well into the late 17th century.

The history of stone tools is closely tied to the development of human cognition, society, and culture. These were one of many adaptations our species developed to survive in an unforgiving paleo world.

Currently, there is a push to continue the study of lithics in the hope of furthering the understanding of prehistoric cognition. Hopefully, between what has been witnessed with tool using chimps and a long history of hominin's using tools, researchers may someday uncover what specifically shaped our ancient origins.

Top image: The evolution of stone tools. Source: andrey gonchar / Adobe Stock.

By B.B. Wagner


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B. B. Wagner's picture

B. B.

B.B. Wagner is currently working on a master’s degree in Anthropology with a focus in Pre-contact America. Wagner is a storyteller, a sword fighter, and a fan of humanity’s past. He is also knowledgeable about topics on Ice Age America... Read More

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