Olduvai stone chopping tool

Contributed by British Museum

Stone chopping tool from the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania. © Trustees of the British Museum

Image 1 of 5

This chopping tool is the oldest humanly made object in the British Museum. It could be used for many purposes including chopping bones, plants and wood. By using a stone hammer to knock flakes off of a pebble our ancestors could make a tool with a sharp, functional edge. Olduvai is part of the great East African Rift Valley torn open by massive earthquakes. Many skulls and bones of our early ancestors have been found along this valley.

Can we be human without objects?

The invention of the first tools is one of the most important moments in human history. Making, using and sharing things played a key role in developing human behaviour. The ability to make tools allowed humans to adapt to new environments and out-compete other animals. Gradually it would lead to humans becoming the most successful animal in the world. All modern technology began with these first chopping tools.

The discovery of this stone tool helped to prove that humans evolved in Africa

Touching history

When you look at this object you might ask yourself what is it and why is it in the Museum? If you were able to hold it in your hand as I did in 2005 and find how comfortably it fits into your palm (like a computer mouse!), you would know straight away that this was made to be held by a person.

I never thought I would have the opportunity to handle something made nearly 2 million years ago. It was just like touching history.

I was one of a team of volunteers which helped visitors to the Museum handle this object. Most of our visitors were just as excited as I was at being able to hold something that was so old.

Some visitors were close to tears. Some were sceptical: was it really made by man and not a piece of rock? I was able to show the visitors the sharp and uniform cutting edge and discuss with them the possibility of how it could have been made by deliberately knocking flakes off the sides using a hard stone a bit like a hammer.

In a letter written to the Museum, a visitor said: ‘The opportunity to hold one of the oldest human artefacts was a unique feeling, and I can honestly say that I have rarely found an object fit so neatly into my hand’. It was the same for many of our visitors who handled the chopping tool.

It is one of the most memorable experiences of my time at the Museum.

Kusuma Barnett, Head of Volunteers, British Museum

Is it objects that make us human?

This stone tells two stories: one about the fossil ancestor who made the tool and the other about the fossil hunter who found it. Is it having objects that makes us human?

The ancestor and the archaeologist are separated by almost two million years. They are similar because both walked upright and used tools. However, they differ greatly in the size of their brains and the sophistication of their technology. So are they both human?

Louis Leakey, the flamboyant Kenyan-born fossil hunter and champion of the importance of Africa for human evolution, was 28 when he found this stone tool. Not everyone believed that they were ancient artefacts and he had to wait another thirty years before it could be scientifically proven.

At the time, he claimed that these ancient Olduvai people, for whom 28 was a ripe old age, were our ancestors because they had things, like this tool. But crows, sea otters, monkeys and apes all make and use tools and we don’t call them human. In fact, these ancestors had brains not much larger than a chimpanzee – almost three times smaller than our own. So, if it wasn’t big brains that made us tool users or tools alone that made us human, was it our minds and imagination?

But how can a stone tool help us to understand the extent of the human mind? Certainly, it cannot tell us about a capacity for language or a passion of religious beliefs. However, the action of flaking the stone repeatedly to create a sharp-edged tool points to other imaginative powers - appreciating the properties of materials, predicting the outcome of physical actions, and understanding that an alternative point of view exists other than your own and acting accordingly. In other words our ancestors had an understanding of how other minds work, something no animal has and which children develop by the age of four.

To complete Leakey’s tale, his discoveries were questioned and his long search for our African origins, as predicted by Darwin, went on and on. His task was to convince others and eventually he triumphed. That was his story.

The toolmaker had other concerns to deal with. As this simple tool shows, he or she was just beginning to appreciate the potential of being human, moving beyond the mental ability of apes and crows and into the foothills of the human imagination. Brains are needed to make objects. But two million years ago a new story began that married brains to objects in such a way that together the human mind evolved.

Professor Clive Gamble, Archaeologist, Royal Holloway University of London

Comments are closed for this object

Comments

  • 9 comments
  • 1. At 21:47 on 29 April 2010, Allan wrote:

    Have the "working ends" of this tool been tested for DNA, to see what animals/mammals it may have been in contact with?

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  • 2. At 19:30 on 11 August 2010, a_voter wrote:

    What kind of stone is it made from?

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  • 3. At 11:55 on 24 August 2010, David Prudames wrote:

    a_voter
    The stone this tool is made from is basalt.
    David Prudames, British Museum

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  • 4. At 00:49 on 9 October 2010, Dryopithecus wrote:

    Chimps can make simple tools. Australopithecines were more intelligent than modern chimps. How can you be sure that this & other stone tools from this time were not made by, e.g., members of Australopithecus africanus?

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  • 5. At 06:41 on 11 October 2010, Jo Blick wrote:

    I can understand how we proove how old the stone is but how do you proove when the stone was made into a tool? I can do it tomorrow if I learned how to...

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  • 6. At 23:37 on 17 October 2010, StoneToolUser wrote:

    While I appreciate the passion of Kusuma Barnett, it is important to understand that many natural cobbles will comfortably fit into our human hands. "Chopping Tools," in this case bifacially flaked, may have been used as tools but it is more likely based on archaeological and experimental evidence that the flakes being removed from these "choppers" (more technically called cores) were the sought-after utilitarian pieces. These flakes provide a longer, more uniform cutting edge and some even show evidence of resharpening. Mary Leakey called these resharpened flakes "utilized flakes." It is important to remember that we can easily put our own bias on archaeological artifacts in terms of interpretation of utility. Experimental evidence is critical for understanding and explaining the evolutionary importance of stone artifacts.

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  • 7. At 00:25 on 18 October 2010, jtactikos wrote:

    The artifact was recovered in situ, meaning in the context that it was discarded. That is how we know how old it is. It might have been made into a tool a day, or or year before it was finally discarded. Once it was discarded it was eventually covered with sediment and its provenience was preserved until we dug it up. Given the fact that the artifact was deposited in sediments that were 'sandwiched' between datable volcanic layers, we know within range of time, when it was deposited. If you had made this tool yesterday, how would you have gotten it be be in cemented sediments that were deposited 1.75 million years ago?

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  • 8. At 00:41 on 18 October 2010, jtactikos wrote:

    It is not having objects that made us human, but it is the adaptive significance of those objects we created, that distinguished us from other primates. Tool use is not exclusive to humans, other species use tools. Human tool use had a distinct impact on human subsistence strategies, allowing us to enlarge our niche to include that which we were not biologically outfitted for. We don't have the large teeth and claws, we have the large brain, that allowed us to modify stone and exploit otherwise inaccessible food resources. This is a uniquely human condition. Defining modern humans, on the other hand, includes a particular significance associated with objects that might suggest learned patterned behavior, or culture.

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  • 9. At 12:56 on 8 November 2010, David Prudames wrote:

    @Allan - Jill Cook, British Museum curator of this object, tells me that DNA does not survive on tool edges. However, we don't need such analyses because the deliberately smashed, broken and cut-marked bones of the animals often survive alongside the tools (they include creatures such as wildebeest, Thomson's gazelle, zebra and eland).

    @Dryopithecus - Again, it's over to Jill Cook who explained that this has been a matter of debate since the 1950s and it is possible that we will one day find artefacts associated with australopithecine remains. But so far, although many australopithecine sites are known, tools have only been found where the remains of the larger brained Homo habilis (Latin for Man the toolmaker) are also or only present. There are, of course many sites where only stone artefacts survive and we cannot tell which human ancestor was responsible and the great thrill of the subject is that new discoveries can change long held theories and who knows what is to come.

    David Prudames, British Museum

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About this object

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Location

Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania

Culture
Period

1.8 - 2 million years old

Theme
Size
H:
8.7cm
W:
9.4cm
D:
6.4cm
Colour
Material

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