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Tools and Technology

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Photographer: Anup Shah/Naturepl.com

Female juvenile Chimpanzee 'Golden' has learnt from her mother how to use a stem as a tool to remove termites from a termite mound (Pan troglodytes schweinfurtheii) Kasekela community, Gombe NP, Tanzania.

Life is hard to imagine without tools. We use them every day, and we have for a very long time. Our ancestors made the first stone tools at least 2.5 million years ago--long before modern humans evolved. Since then, our ability to invent has taken us far beyond our basic need for food and shelter. Yet many of the tools we use today spring from old traditions. We often innovate by learning from the past.

How Did Humans Learn to Make Tools?

The basic mental skills needed for stone tool making arose early in our evolutionary history.

c. 2.5 million years ago

Our ancestors learned to strike one stone with another to remove sharp flakes for cutting. To do so, they had to plan, learn from mistakes and choose their materials well.

c. 1.5 million years ago

Early humans invented the hand axe--the first tool with a well-defined form. Hand axe makers could mentally picture the final shape before starting work on the tool.

c. 300,000 years ago

Toolmakers understood how to prepare a stone "core" so that a flake knocked from the surface had a smooth, sharp cutting edge extending far around it.

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© Bergen Museum

European hooks (Skipshelleren), c. 3000 BC

Hooked

Like early members of the human family, modern humans learn tool making from each other. We also adapt, modify and refine our tools more than any other species. The oldest tools known resembling fishhooks, for example, were made around 18,000 years ago. Over the centuries, we have recreated this basic tool again and again for specialized uses all over the world.

Early Fishing

These carefully crafted harpoon points were probably made more than 70,000 years ago and are among the oldest known tools shaped from bone. Catfish remains were discovered at the site where these points were found, suggesting they may have been early fishing tools.

The Inventory of Pottery

As people began to settle in fixed places, clay pots became common for cooking and storage. Some of the oldest pottery known was made in Japan around 12,000 years ago. Between 10,000 and 8,000 years ago, ceramic pots were invented independently in North Africa and the Near East. From there, the technology for molding and firing vessels of clay spread to Europe and many other parts of the world.

Keeping Count

The first counting devices may have involved simple tallies, but complex societies used more sophisticated mathematical tools. To record transactions and collect statistics, the Incas of South America used a quipu. Each dangling cord has clusters of knots representing a number. Long knots with multiple loops represent units; single knots farther up on the cord indicate tens, then hundreds. Color and placement were also used to mark different categories of information.

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