Breakthrough in human tools: the scene shifts to Africa

A means of assessing the cognitive abilities of hominins is through the objects that they created, whether tools or artefacts with apparent symbolic significance. The latter include pigments, coloured shells, beads, artwork or even deliberately parallel and crossing lines gouged on otherwise innocuous rock. Undoubtedly valuable to their creators, possibly treasured and passed on until lost or broken – most are fragile – symbolic artefacts are rare. So although they shout ‘thoughtful’, their age tells us little about when such a capacity first arose. Many archaeologists and palaeoanthropologists assert that creating and/or manipulating symbols may signify a link with being able to speak. Tools are a lot easier to find, probably as discards and lost items, and a well-described and understood sequence of forms and sometimes uses has been established, which extends as far back as perhaps 3 Ma – before the genus Homo appeared.

In terms of their meaning in terms of the consciousness of their makers and users, there are possibly four major recognisable steps. Chimpanzees and some birds can learn to pick up natural objects, such as stones and twigs, and use them: some bands of chimps even retain the knowledge. A step beyond that is preparing a natural object for use, as with breaking a pebble to create a cutting edge: something not exclusively human because it is possible that pre-human hominins created the earliest such Oldowan tools. Being able to visualise hidden potential inside something natural is altogether more advanced, and is represented by the iconic bi-face or Acheulean ‘hand-axe’. Its earliest makers, H. ergaster and erectus, literally brought such objects to light by skilfully knapping away the outer parts of substantial lumps of suitable rock. The knowledge endured for more than a million years but was eventually added to and superseded by a range of more delicate and specific stone tools, but more sophisticated tools represented the same ‘liberation’ of a simple idea held in rock. The fourth general cognitive leap was to add several resources together as composite tools, and arguably we have not long emerged from that phase with the creation of composite tools that help us design and make other tools: a machine-tool culture.

English: Backed edge bladelet Español: Hojita ...
Example of a microlith (credit: Wikipedia)

It is that penultimate step-up in consciousness that has been engaging archaeologists since they first realised that some small, sharp chips of stone were not waste but deliberately crafted for combination with wood or bone. Such ‘microliths’ have been found in intact arrows and sickles of the Meso- and Neolithic, but their range steadily goes back in time with more research. Unmistakeable microliths have now been discovered at the South African coastal site at Pinnacle Point, in an occupation layer that is 71 ka old (Brown, K.S. and 8 others 2012. An early and enduring advanced technology originating 71, 000 years ago in South Africa. Nature, v. 491, p. 590-593).

The Pinnacle Point technology was indeed sophisticated, microlith manufacture requiring fire treatment as well as choice of rock and careful shaping and sharpening. As well as extending the microlith culture back so far the team of South African, US, Australian and Greek archaeologists compared them with 28 later African tool kits. The designs have barely changed from 71 ka to those of the last few hundred years. Kyle Brown and colleagues show that the industrial method endured, thereby laying to rest the somewhat reactionary notion that the methods were lost again and again in Africa after separate inventions and were only taken up decisively by the supposed ‘advanced’ anatomically modern humans who colonised Europe…

It is difficult to see how the Pinnacle Point microliths could have been useful, unless hafted in arrows or throwing sticks – maybe even saws and sickles? Crucially, they predate larger blade-tools that could have been hafted to form spears. The focus must now shift to the Zambian scene where possible microliths are reported at two 250 ka sites. If confirmed, they would link the decisive fourth cognitive step towards humanity with the very origin of fully modern humans, rather than a much later, non-African dawning of ‘smarts’ along with language, advanced art and much else in the chilly caves of southern Europe.

Of all human-colonised continents Africa lags far behind the rest as regards spread and density of archaeological digs. Only the ‘famous’ sites attract resources for investigation. Imagine what might emerge once there are more local people with research skills, equipment and transport; and, dare I say it, more independence of action and the attendant confidence in their ability.