When we think of the “Stone Age,” images of rock-hewn bowls, flint-tipped spears and granite washboards may come to mind, but even those simple implements first required the development of rudimentary tools.
The so-called “Oldowan Tool Industry” was named after a location in Tanzania where a collection of crude prehistoric tools were found. They are believed to be over two million years old.
It is still highly debated as to whether early hominins were consciously manufacturing these tools for practical uses and made way for further advancements, or whether this technological stage was a static one that encouraged no further changes.
The first real issue to tackle is who were the real creators of this “lithic industry,” using the word “industry” to refer to the set of distinct tools found in a particular area.
Paranthropus, Austrolopithecus and Homo habilis have all been given credit for crafting these stone implements. Until now, there is still no definite answer.
Those hominins were extremely primitive by today’s standards. They have sometimes been likened to having social behaviors and traits similar to those of modern apes.
But they were not at all ape-like. They were bipedal and practiced “curation,” retaining tools for future use.
Chimpanzees will utilize sticks for termite fishing as well as crude stone cores, but owing to their quadripedic nature, chimps rarely take their “tools” with them to distant places.
At first glance, the Oldowan tools appear to be ordinary chips of stone. But in the eyes of an expert, different forms are revealed that could have served practical purposes during prehistoric times.
For example, numerous rock “cores” were found, which were heavy and must have served as weapons, adzes or killing implements to subdue prey.
The chipped flakes for these cores were sharp and might have served as some sort of slitting tool to open up carcasses.
Heavier versions of the cores would have served as effective bone-smashers to access the delicious marrows and brains of prey.
The most important aspect of the Oldowan tool industry is its relatively high level of craftsmanship. The consistency of the quartz, quartzite and basalt rocks required a technique whereby a specific angle had to be observed when chipping the cores.
Such manufacture required some level of skill or cognitive ability, as even modern-day humans trying to replicate the tools required several hours before acquiring the skill needed for effectively chipping off flakes from basalt cores.
Archaeologists are still unearthing finds in Oldowan as well as in the surrounding areas. Digs at sites outside Africa have indicated tool industries similar to the one witnessed at Oldowan and perhaps even older.
Whether the Oldowan site will continue to be seen as the world’s earliest tool industry or not, and no matter which hominin race fashioned the artifacts, one point is clear. Tools set humanity apart from other species and made it possible to build our future.
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