Using tools has been interpreted as a sign of intelligence, and it has been theorized that tool use may have stimulated certain aspects of human evolution —most notably the continued expansion of the human brain. Paleontology has yet to explain the expansion of this organ over millions of years. The brain of a modern human consumes about 20 watts (400 kilocalories per day), which is one fifth of the energy consumption of a human body. Increased tool use would allow hunting for energy-rich meat products, and would enable processing more energy-rich plant products. Researchers have suggested that early hominids were thus under evolutionary pressure to increase their capacity to create and use tools.
Precisely when early humans started to use tools is difficult to determine, because the more primitive these tools are (for example, sharp-edged stones) the more difficult it is to decide whether they are natural objects or human artefacts. There is some evidence that the australopithecines (4 Ma) may have used broken bones as tools, but this is debated.
It should be noted that many species make and use tools, but it is the human species that dominates the areas of making and using more complex tools. The oldest known tools are the “Oldowan stone tools” from Ethiopia. It was discovered that these tools are from 2.5 to 2.6 million years old, which predates the earliest known “Homo” species. There is no known evidence that any “Homo” specimens appeared by 2.5 Ma. A Homo fossil was found near some Oldowan tools, and its age was noted at 2.3 million years old. Although there is no direct evidence that points to Paranthropus as the tool makers, their anatomy lends to indirect evidence of their capabilities in this area. Most paleoanthropologists agree that the early “Homo” species were indeed responsible for most of the Oldowan tools found.
In 1994, Randall Susman used the anatomy of opposable thumbs as the basis for his argument that both the Homo and Paranthropus species were toolmakers. He compared bones and muscles of human and chimpanzee thumbs, finding that humans have 3 muscles that chimps lack. Humans also have thicker metacarpals with broader heads, making the human hand more successful at precision grasping than the chimpanzee hand.
11.8.1 Stone tools
Stone tools are first attested around 2.6 Ma, when Homo habilis in Eastern Africa used so-called pebble tools, choppers made out of round pebbles that had been split by simple strikes. This marks the beginning of the Paleolithic, or Old Stone Age; its end is taken to be the end of the last Ice Age, around 10,000 years ago. The Paleolithic is subdivided into the Lower Paleolithic (Early Stone Age, ending around 350,000–300,000 years ago), the Middle Paleolithic (Middle Stone Age, until 50,000–30,000 years ago), and the Upper Paleolithic.
The period from 700,000–300,000 years ago is also known as the Acheulean, when Homo ergaster (or erectus) made large stone hand-axes out of flint and quartzite, at first quite rough (Early Acheulian), later “retouched” by additional, more subtle strikes at the sides of the flakes. After 350,000 BP (Before Present) the more refined so-called Levallois technique was developed. It consisted of a series of consecutive strikes, by which scrapers, slicers (“racloirs”), needles, and flattened needles were made. Finally, after about 50,000 BP, ever more refined and specialized flint tools were made by the Neanderthals and the immigrant Cro-Magnons (knives, blades, skimmers). In this period they also started to make tools out of bone.
11.8.2 Modern humans and the “Great Leap Forward” debate
Until about 50,000–40,000 years ago the use of stone tools seems to have progressed stepwise. Each phase (habilis, ergaster, neanderthal) started at a higher level than the previous one; but once that phase started, further development was slow. In other words, these particular Homo species were culturally conservative. After 50,000 BP, however, human culture apparently started to change at a much greater speed. Modern humans started burying their dead carefully, making clothing out of hides, developing sophisticated hunting techniques (such as using trapping pits or driving animals off cliffs), and engaging in cave painting. This speed-up of cultural change seems connected with the arrival of behaviourally modern humans, Homo sapiens. As human culture advanced, different populations of humans introduced novelty to existing technologies: artefacts such as fish hooks, buttons and bone needles show signs of variation among different populations of humans, something that had not been seen in human cultures prior to 50,000 BP. Typically, neanderthalensis populations are found with technology similar to other contemporary neanderthalensis populations.
Theoretically, modern human behaviour is taken to include four ingredient capabilities: abstract thinking (concepts free from specific examples), planning (taking steps to achieve a further goal), innovation (finding new solutions), and symbolic behaviour (such as images and rituals). Among concrete examples of modern human behaviour, anthropologists include specialization of tools, use of jewellery and images (such as cave drawings), organization of living space, rituals (for example, burials with grave gifts), specialized hunting techniques, exploration of less hospitable geographical areas, and barter trade networks. Nevertheless, debate continues as to whether a “revolution” led to modern humans (“the big bang of human consciousness”), or whether the evolution was more gradual.