The handy tool that started it all

Wangaratta Chronicle - North East Regional Extra - - Regionalextra - WITH CHRIS FEBVRE,

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.

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