History Stories

From sharpened rocks to polished stone axes, Stone Age human ancestors made progressively more complex devices over 2.6 million years.

Humans weren’t the first to make or use stone tools. That honor appears to belong to the ancient species that lived on the shores of Lake Turkana, in Kenya, some 3.3 million years ago. First discovered in 2011, these more primitive tools were created some 700,000 years before the earliest members of the Homo genus emerged.

The earliest known human-made stone tools date back around 2.6 million years. Crafted and used by Homo habilis (sometimes known as “handy man”), these implements marked the first in a series of major toolmaking advances among early human hunter-gatherer societies, lasting from the early Stone Age all the way up until the first modern humans, Homo sapiens, made the transition to permanent agricultural settlements around 10,000 years ago.

1.) Sharpened stones (Oldowan tools): 2.6 million years ago

Oldowan Tools

One of the earliest examples of stone tools found in Ethiopia.

The early Stone Age (also known as the Lower Paleolithic) saw the development of the first stone tools by Homo habilis, one of the earliest members of the human family. These were basically stone cores with flakes removed from them to create a sharpened edge that could be used for cutting, chopping or scraping.

Though they were first discovered at (and named for) Olduvai Gorge near Lake Victoria, Tanzania, the oldest known Oldowan tools were found in Gona, Ethiopia, and date back to about 2.6 million years ago. Oldowan tools represent the first “mode” in the framework of tool technologies proposed by the British archaeologist Grahame Clark in his book World Prehistory: A New Synthesis (1969), which is still used by many archaeologists for classification today.

2.) Stone handaxe (Acheulean tools): 1.6 million years ago

Acheulean Tools

An Acheulean handaxe from Swakscombe, Kent, now held in the collections of the British Museum.

The next leap forward in tool technology occurred when early humans began striking flakes off longer rock cores to shape them into thinner, less rounded implements, including a new kind of tool called a handaxe. With two curved, flaked surfaces forming the cutting edge (a technique known as bifacial working), these more sophisticated Acheulean tools proved sharper and more effective.

Named for St. Acheul on the Somme River in France, where the first tools from this tradition were found in the mid-19th century, Acheulean tools spread from Africa over much of the world with the migration of Homo erectus, a closer relative to modern humans. They have been found at sites as far afield as southern Africa, northern Europe and the Indian subcontinent.

3.) A new kind of knapping (Levallois technique): 400,000 to 200,000 years ago

the discovered flint artifacts

Stone tools found in a neanderthal flint workshop discovered in Poland.

Though teardrop-shaped Acheulean handaxes remained the dominant tool technology until around 100,000 years ago, at least one significant innovation emerged long before that among early human species such as Homo neanderthalensis, or Neanderthals.

Known as the Levallois, or prepared-core technique, it involved striking pieces off a stone core to produce a tortoise-shell like shape, then carefully striking the core again in such a way that a single large, sharp flake can be broken off. The method could produce numerous knife-like tools of predictable size and shape, a considerable advance in toolmaking technology.

Named for the site outside Paris where archaeologists first recognized and described it in the 1860s, the Levallois technique was widely used in the Mousterian tool culture associated with Neanderthals in Europe, Asia and Africa as late as 40,000 years ago. While Neanderthals were long assumed to be far more primitive than modern humans, their prolific production of such relatively sophisticated tools suggests a more complicated reality.

4.) Cutting blades (Aurignacian industry): 80,000 to 40,000 years ago

Aurignacian Tools

An Aurignacian blade shown from three angles.

This Upper Paleolithic stone tool tradition emerged among both Neanderthals and the first modern humans, or Homo sapiens, in Europe and parts of Africa. The central innovation of this type of toolmaking involved detaching long rectangular flakes from a stone core to form blades, which proved more effective at cutting. The blades’ shape also made them easier to attach to a handle, which gave greater leverage and increased efficiency.

Named for the French village of Aurignac, where prehistoric remains were discovered in a cave in 1860, the Aurignacian culture is associated with the first anatomically modern humans in Europe. In addition to their innovations with tools, the Aurignacians also made some of the earliest representational artwork, leaving behind engraved limestone tablets and blocks featuring depictions of animals such as aurochs, an ancestor of wild cattle.

5.) Small, sharp micro blades (Magdalenian culture):  11,000 to 17,000 years ago

Magdalenian tools

Microliths were added to Late Magdalenian bone tools like these, including harpoons and projectile points.

The Magdalenian culture is a central example of the fifth and final mode in Clark’s framework of stone tool development, characterized by small tools known as geometric microliths, or stone blades or flakes that have been shaped into triangles, crescents and other geometric forms. When attached to handles made of bone or antler, these could easily be used as projectile weapons, as well as for woodworking and food preparation purposes.

The first microlithic technologies emerged among early humans in Africa and Eurasia about 50,000 years ago, during a time of rapid change and development that some anthropologists have called the “Great Leap Forward.” As the archaeologist John J. Shea wrote in an article in American Scientist in 2011, it was also a time when the climate varied dramatically, and humans may have needed more versatile and easily transportable tools as they migrated in search of readily available food sources in an unpredictable environment.

6.) Axes, celts, chisels (Neolithic tools): around 12,000 years ago

Neolithic tools

Jadeite axes from the Neolithic Period in central Europe.

Starting around 10,000 B.C., during the Neolithic Period, otherwise known as the New Stone Age, humans made the transition from small, nomadic groups of hunter-gatherers to larger agricultural settlements. In terms of tools, this period saw the emergence of stone tools that were produced not by flaking but by grinding and polishing stones. These tools, including axes, adzes, celts, chisels and gouges, were not only more pleasing to look at; they were also more efficient to use and easier to sharpen when they became dull.

Polished Neolithic axes, like those found at sites in Denmark and England, allowed humans to clear wide swathes of woodland to create their agricultural settlements. Toward the end of the Neolithic Period, however, the emergence of copper and later bronze led humans to transition into using metal, rather than stone, as the primary material for their tools and weapons. The Stone Age had come to an end, and a new era of human civilization had begun. 

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