The Tool-Making Animal

6 minutes

(male narrator) A smooth stone is given an edge, and the course of life on earth is changed forever. This was the first step on the journey to our technological present. Though tool use is not uniquely human, the sophistication of our tools and our degree of reliance upon them sets us apart from other species. So when did human toolmaking begin and why? And what does it tells us about the evolution of our ancestors? Like fossils, stone tools can be dated by geochemical analysis of the sediment layer in which they were buried. The oldest yet found was in East African sediments formed 2.5 million years ago. The nearly 2-million-year-old sediments of Tanzania's Olduvai Gorge were first made famous by the thousands of stone tools found there by Louis and Mary Leakey. Paleontologist Tim White has access to a number of Olduvai stone tools at the University of California, Berkeley. Tim, these are actual tools from Olduvai Gorge. The bottom of Olduvai Gorge. These are 1.8 million years old. That's right. They were made by someone. That's right. You could walk past these and say, "They look like a rock." How do you know this was made intentionally? There are two reasons you know they are stone tools. Number one, they're found in very fine grain lakebeds. There's no way they could have gotten there by themselves. Secondly, the sharp edge and these scars. Because as you can see, it's a rounded, water-worn cobble that has been broken by repeated strikes of a hammerstone. This is called a core. What is struck from the core are smaller shards of rock called flakes. These kinds of tools are where technology begins. Stone-tool technology designed to create sharp edges. And those sharp edges are used to remove meat from large-mammal carcasses. A carcass like what? Like a giraffe, like a wildebeest, large mammals that are a big, big, rich resource of fat and protein, for things like lions, hyenas, but never primates. Primates don't go in the neighborhood of these carcasses because they're also a very dangerous place. And for a hominid, without the speed and agility of another carnivore, it would be basically suicidal. You'd be becoming a snack. Unless you can approach the carcass, remove the tissue, and then exploit the bones for what lies inside-- the fatty marrow. You have to cut through the flesh. How do you get the marrow? You break the bone. Primates can't do that without technology. So those first hominids did it the simple way. We have bones that have traces of these cutting activities and traces of the hammering activities. This is a fossil from Olduvai Gorge. It shows that some hominid impacted the shaft with a hammerstone and formed this scar on the inside. That is evidence of access to marrow. Marrow is a really rich dietary resource for early hominids. The combination: tools, diet, and I imagine, ingenuity--brains, both in terms of when to go out after the kill, cooperating with other hominids. All that's taking place. This is becoming a different creature than its ancestors.

(narrator) Stone tools are datable evidence of sophisticated behaviors. Far more durable than the bones of their makers, they reveal a critical transition in the lives of our early ancestors.

(White) These tools represent an expansion of the behavioral capabilities of these organisms. They're no longer foraging for roots and tubers and a few fruits in the trees. They're out competing with carnivores who can eat them.

(narrator) That's a very different kind of primate, a primate whose tool-making descendants would change the face of the planet.

[boom]

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PH: 1-800-USA-LEARN (V) or WEB: www.ed.gov.


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Though tool use is not unique to humans, their sophistication and degree of reliance upon them is unique, and sets humans apart from other species. So when did human tool-making begin, and why? And what does the use of tools reveal about the evolution of human ancestors? Paleoanthropologist Tim White reveals the answers in this short video.

Media Details

Runtime: 6 minutes

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