Tiny tools may have been crucial in human evolution

Anthropologists have long made the case that tool-making is one of the key behaviors that separated our human ancestors from other primates. A new paper, however, argues that it was not tool-making that set hominins apart — it was the miniaturization of tools.

CREDIT: EMORY UNIVERSITY

Just as tiny transistors transformed telecommunications a few decades ago, and scientists are now challenged to make them even smaller, our Stone Age ancestors felt the urge to make tiny tools. The journal Evolutionary Anthropology is publishing the paper — the first comprehensive overview of prehistoric tool miniaturization. It proposes that miniaturization is a central tendency in hominin technologies going back at least 2.6 million years.

“When other apes used stone tools, they chose to go big and stayed in the forests where they evolved,” says co-author John Shea, professor of anthropology at Stony Brook University. “Hominins chose to go small, went everywhere, and transformed otherwise hostile habitats to suit our changing needs.”

The paper reviews how stone flakes less than an inch in length — used for piercing, cutting and scraping — pop up in the archeological record at sites on every continent, going back to some of the earliest known stone tool assemblages. These small stone flakes were like the disposable razor blades or paperclips of today — pervasive, easy to make and easily replaced.

Further information on this research: From Stone Age Chips to Microchips

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