The handy tool that started it all
WHEN we ponder technology, we might have thoughts of aeroplanes and cars, computers and phones, freeways and skyscrapers, and various other modern day marvels.
What we consider less often is that each and every example of technology we use today has roots that date back millennia, and in some cases, even millions of years.
Perhaps even more startling is the fact that some of the earliest tools, similar in form and function to modern day axes, were not first developed by homosapiens, but an entirely different species - homo habilis.
Earliest records of homo habilis hand-axes dates back some 1.6 millions years, and represents a great and significant first step in the development of technology.
Most commonly made with flint rock by a process called ‘knapping’ (breaking of a shard of stone and the sharpening/shaping the edge).
While the earliest examples of these axes were un-hafted and simply consisted of the stone shard itself with a wider heel on the unsharpened/ shaped end, later iterations did indeed have hafts - commonly made of bone, antler or wood.
Common depictions of Stone Age men and women show these brave inventors using the axe as a weapon, and while they may indeed have used them as such in emergencies, it was more likely that the tool was used for hammering, digging or cutting the ground and plants around them.
Indeed, some archeologists and paleontologists describe the hand-axe as the Swiss army knife of the Stone Age - a description that is likely most apt.
Steven Mithin, a professor of archaeology at the University of Reading, suggests that a well-shaped and symmetrical hand-axe may have even been favoured in sexual selection as fitness indicators, meaning that the tool-makers with the best looking axes would attract mates.
This hypothesis was further supported by the fact that many hand-axes that have been unearthed are either too big or too small to have been of practical use, while some were intricately detailed beyond mere utilitarianism, and still others (when examined under a microscope) showed no signs of use at all.
But whether the hand axe was used for attacking, or crafting, or *ahem* ‘overcompensating for something’, it is essentially the tool that began to blur the boundaries between humankind and the rest of the animal kingdom.
It was the tool that combined two or more natural objects to create something unnatural.
The moment when the hand-axe was first created was divergence between mere instinct and the gradual accumulation of intelligence.
The roles of ‘prey’ and preyedupon’ were reversed at this juncture, and it was among the first, tangible symbols of self- conscious thought.
So the next time you pick up an axe, or a hammer, spare a thought for the ancestor who first came up with the crazy idea.
Without them, civilisation as we know it would not exist.