World History 1 19 - 2.1.3 Early Human Technologies

To understand how early humans lived hundreds of thousands and even millions of years ago, scholars use the tools of archaeology to analyze the objects left behind. Many were made of materials like wood, animal skin, and earth, which rarely endure in the archaeological record. Bone items are somewhat more durable and have occasionally survived. But our window into the distant past is quite small. Stone items are the most likely to have lasted long enough for us to study them today. Beginning possibly as early as 3.3 million years ago, our distant pre-human ancestors began using stone tools for a variety of purposes. This event marks the start of the Paleolithic Age (lithos means “stone”), which lasted until nearly twelve thousand years ago.

The earliest known human-made stone tools date from about 2.6 million years ago. They were likely first created by Homo habilis, by smashing smooth rocks together to create crudely sharpened edges. The resulting implements are often described as Oldowan tools, and their use continued until about 1.7 million years ago. While a seemingly simple adaptation from our perspective, the development of Oldowan tools in fact represents a huge leap in human engineering ability. These sharpened stones served a variety of cutting, scraping, and chopping purposes. They were highly efficient tools for killing animals, butchering meat, smashing bones to access marrow, and a host of similar tasks.

Beginning around 1.7 million years ago, some ancient humans began to develop a new and more sophisticated style of stone tool by carefully chipping away smaller flakes of the stone core to create a teardrop-shaped implement often described as a hand-axe. Far thinner and sharper than the Oldowan tools, hand-axes were even better at the cutting, scraping, and chopping tasks for which they were designed. They were such an improvement over earlier tools that archaeologists have given them their own name. They are called Acheulean tools (pronounced ah-SHOOL-ee-an), after Saint-Acheul, the site in France where they were first found in the nineteenth century CE. Since then, more Acheulean tools have been uncovered in Africa, the Middle East, and India and scattered in parts of East Asia (Figure 2.8).

Two pictures are shown. (a) The first picture shows two pear shaped rocks in brown/gray/black colors. They are pointy at the top and rounded at the bottom. (b) The second picture shows an oval shaped rock in gray/purple/brown colors. It has two flat sections on top, a flat section on each side, and a rounded bottom and front. Some of the edges are bumpy and some are sharper.
Figure 2.8 Acheulean hand-axes (a) were far more sophisticated and required more skill to create than the earlier Oldowan variety (b). (credit a: modification of work “Handaxe in quartzite, from the bed TG-10 of Galería in Atapuerca (Burgos, Spain)” by “Locutus Borg”/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain; credit b: modification of work “Canto tallado de tradición Olduvayense procedente de la región del Sáhara atlántico Guelmim-Es Semara (Museo Arqueológico Nacional de Madrid)” by “Locutus Borg/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Far superior to the Oldowan variety, Acheulean tools remained the dominant style of stone tool until as recently as about 250,000 years ago. At that time a new type of utensil emerged in Europe, North Africa, and southwestern Asia. Called Mousterian tools, these implements were smaller hand-axes and tools made from stone flakes rather than cores. In older traditions, the flakes had been removed in order to shape the core as desired, such as into a hand-axe. But in the Mousterian tradition, sometimes the flakes were chipped off in such a way that they themselves could be used as small knives for cutting meat, scraping leather, and serving as spearheads attached to shafts (Figure 2.9). Advances to the Mousterian techniques later led to other tool traditions. By around forty-five thousand years ago, humans were making a great diversity of specialized tools from stone flakes. These included a variety of scrapers as well as engraving tools for carving and carefully reshaping softer materials like bone and antler into either tools or works of art.

A picture of five brownish stones on wire holders is shown on a beige table. Foliage is shown in the background. The first stone is oval with grooves along the top and three smooth sections below. The three middle rocks are shown sideways, with grooves along the edges and smooth sides. The last rock is a rounded triangle, with white lines indicating long grooves running from the front to the back and a curled lip at the bottom.
Figure 2.9 Mousterian stone tools, like these found in Israel, were used as scrapers for more careful butchering of animals between 250,000 and 50,000 years ago. (credit: modification of work “Stone Scrapers for Cleaning & Working Leather, Mousterian Culture” by Gary Todd/Flickr, Public Domain)

Another important tool of our human ancestors was fire. When exactly humans began controlling fire remains a topic of debate. There is evidence that earlier ancestors like Homo erectus used it, but we don’t know whether they were able to start fires or merely used and perpetuated those that naturally occurred. It’s clear, however, that by at least about 125,000 years ago, if not much earlier, modern humans had learned to start and control fires.

Controlled fires were useful for staying warm in cold climates, scaring off predators, and cooking meat to make it easier to consume and digest. Archaeological finds also suggest that controlled fires aided in the manufacture of certain tools. Wooden spears could be hardened in the flame, making them more effective hunting implements. Some types of stone could be treated with heat to make them easier to chip and mold. Fire also played an important social function. Gathering around the heat and light likely aided in bonding and helped build the social connections vital for cooperative activities and group survival.

Sitting around a fire may also have been an occasion for early humans to display one of their most powerful tools, the unique ability to use sounds as language. There is some speculation that earlier human ancestors like Homo erectus were able to make sound and possibly had a type of language. We’ll never know for sure. But we do know that modern humans are capable of making a great variety of different sounds. Biologists calculate that we can produce fifty different phonemes, or distinctive sounds. When strung together in a sophisticated manner, these phonemes can produce many tens of thousands of words to describe what we see, feel, do, and imagine. Beginning at least 100,000 years ago, modern humans began using language in this fashion, gaining a major advantage over competing animals. With language, they could coordinate daily tasks, work much more efficiently in groups, communicate abstract ideas, and pass important information to successive generations. Few tools aided modern humans more than their ability to communicate with complex languages.

While they left no record of their discussions, early humans did leave a number of impressive artistic depictions. The work that has survived includes small animal and human sculptures, usually made of carved bone or stone. The human-shaped items are often of large, possibly pregnant, women and might have served as symbols of fertility. There are also preserved hand prints, created by placing a hand on stone and blowing pigment around it to preserve the image of its shape.

Some of the most stunning prehistoric art still in existence today consists of cave paintings dating as far back as forty thousand years. Many painted caves have been discovered in Spain and France, but there are also examples in England, Italy, Germany, Russia, and Indonesia. The paintings in the Cave of Altamira in northern Spain are prime examples of this type of art. Within the cave, and dating to about thirty-six thousand years ago, are more than two dozen large images of animals including bison, bulls, horses, deer, and boars. Each is painted in impressive detail using combinations of charcoal and ochre (a pigment made from clay) to produce bold reds, yellows, browns, and blacks. In many instances, the artists incorporated features of the cave walls as part of their designs, giving three-dimensional shape and definition to the animals they drew (Figure 2.10).

Two pictures are shown. (a) The first picture shows a drawing of a bison on a rocky, cracked, brown wall. The animal’s body is drawn in red with a black underside and tail, black pointy hair in the middle of its back, a black tuft under its mouth and black eyes. The legs are outlined in black and there are black horns on the top of the animal’s head. There are other black and rust colored markings around the animal in various shapes. (b) A picture of a gray, stone wall is shown standing on a tiled floor with sun streaming from windows on the opposite side. The stone wall shows pictures of rust-colored animals all over, with one animal close to the front a light black color. The bumps in the wall make the animals stand out.
Figure 2.10 The Paleolithic artist who painted this (a) bison in Altamira Cave (in what is now Spain) used protruding features of the cave’s surface to create a three-dimensional effect, such as at the bison’s shoulders. (b) Other examples of three-dimensionality in the art of Altamira are apparent in a Czech museum’s model of the cave’s ceiling. (credit a: modification of work “Cave Paintings” by Graeme Churchard/Flickr, CC BY 2.0; credit b: modification of work “A model of the ceiling of Altamira from right, in the Brno museum Anthropos” by “HTO”/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Beyond the Book

Interpreting Artistic Expression in the Paleolithic Age

We often think of visual art as a relatively modern gesture consisting of works like oil paintings, sculptures, and even computer-designed images. But artistic expression among our species is quite ancient. We may never know how much art was produced tens of thousands of years ago; many examples have probably been lost. But what we do have is fascinating to behold, though interpreting it is much like trying to reconstruct an entire puzzle from just a few pieces.

Some of the most interesting and perplexing artistic works include a number of female images sometimes called Venus figurines. These are relatively small statuettes (one to sixteen inches in height) that were carved from stone, ivory, bone, or clay to resemble women. The tiny Venus of Hohle Fels, discovered in Germany, is the oldest such object found to date (Figure 2.11). Carved from mammoth ivory, it dates to about forty thousand years ago, and what remains of it depicts a woman with large exaggerated breasts. This feature has led some anthropologists to conclude that it was intended to represent sex, reproduction, or fertility.

A picture of an old artifact is shown on a blue background. It is rectangular and colored black and yellow. A small loop is shown at the top right. It has two bumps on the front toward the top and lines running horizontally across the middle with two short legs coming out of the bottom. It is shown displayed on a rod anchored to the left projection at the bottom.
Figure 2.11 The Venus of Hohle Fels, found in Germany, was created from mammoth ivory approximately forty thousand years ago and is just under two and a half inches in height. (credit: “Venus"-pendant, mammoth ivory, Alb-Donau Region, on loan from the National Archaeological Museum in Baden-Württemberg, shown at the Landesmuseum Württemberg, Stuttgart, Germany” by “Anagoria”/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 3.0)

Similar to the Venus of Hohle Fels and also discovered in Germany is the Venus of Willendorf (Figure 2.12). This female figurine, less than five inches tall, may be as much as thirty-three thousand years old. Like other such images, it shows a woman with exaggerated breasts and a stylized head with no facial features. Analysis of it has produced a number of interpretations, from the traditional representation of fertility to a type of self-portrait.

A picture is shown of an orange-colored artifact on a blue and white checkered background. The artifact has a round head, adorned with small squares circling the head. The bottom of the round head shows a small hole. Below the head appear small shoulders, two large breasts, a large protruding belly in the front and back, a deep belly button, and thick legs that turn into toes. A rod is shown holding up the artifact.
Figure 2.12 Those who suggest the Venus of Willendorf may be a self-portrait note that it could be showing how a woman would have seen herself if she were looking down instead of at her reflection. (credit: “Venus von Willendorf; Kopie” by “Thirunavukkarasye-Raveendran”/Wikimedia Commons, CC0 1.0)

Unlike the preceding examples, the Venus of Dolní Věstonice, discovered in the modern Czech Republic, is made of ceramic (Figure 2.13). It stands just under four and a half inches tall and may be as much as twenty-nine thousand years old.

A picture of a black sculpture is shown on a yellow bumpy background. The sculpture has a long, rectangularly rounded head with two slits toward the top. Broad shoulders lead to large hanging breasts and a large belly extending on both sides with a deep belly button in the middle. The bottom is one triangular piece with a jagged bottom. A large crack runs along the left side from the bottom to the belly.
Figure 2.13 The small Venus of Dolní Věstonice is an early example of a fired-clay sculpture. (credit: modification of work “Dolní Věstonice Venus - Fossils in the Arppeanum” by “Daderot”/Wikimedia Commons, CC0 1.0)

Various other female figurines have been found as far from Europe as central Russia, and while individually unique, all have the same characteristics. They are small and were likely intended to be portable. They have exaggerated breasts and often show reproductive organs. They have large bellies that may reflect pregnancy. But without some record from the people who created them, their true symbolism and use will likely remain a mystery.

  • Why do you think these figurines are often interpreted as being related to fertility? Do you think that interpretation is plausible? Why or why not?
  • What interpretation of these figurines would you suggest, based on the information you’ve read and seen here?

The significance that cave paintings held for the people who created them may never be fully understood. It was once believed the images were designed to be popularly admired as interesting decorations, not unlike the ornaments we put in our homes today. But given that they are often deep in the dark interiors of the caves, where sunlight could not reach, this interpretation has mostly been abandoned.

With limited insight into the minds of the artists, scholars have concluded that the art likely served some unknown religious purpose. Many speculate that the caves could have been used by shamans—men and women thought to have a special knowledge of the spiritual world—who might have crawled deep into the interior to commune in ceremonies with a type of spiritual force. Such interpretations remain little more than educated guesses. What is indisputable is that the art demonstrates that even tens of thousands of years ago humans had the unique ability to reproduce the world around them in complex, symbolic fashion, through images we can immediately recognize today.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 1: to 1500 textbook by Openstax