The Gulf Today - Panorama - - CONTENTS - By David Key

Stone Age treasures un­earthed in Sus­sex sug­gest early hu­mans had mod­ern hu­man-like hands

Ev­i­dence from a quarry in south­ern Eng­land is shed­ding ex­tra­or­di­nary new light on the evo­lu­tion of hu­man in­tel­li­gence. Ar­guably, the most im­por­tant driv­ing force that en­abled early hu­mans to evolve into ever more in­tel­li­gent crea­tures was the hu­man hand, which gave us the phys­i­cal abil­ity to make things.

Without that cru­cial abil­ity, there would never have been the need to imag­ine and vi­su­alise com­plex ob­jects purely in the mind, or the abil­ity to then in­vent, man­u­fac­ture and use them.

Now ar­chae­ol­o­gists have demon­strated for the first time that a par­tic­u­lar type of stone tool used some half a mil­lion years ago could not have been made without mod­ern hu­man­like hands.

The study — based on beau­ti­fully made pre­his­toric tools found at Box­grove in West Sus­sex — re­veals for the first time that early Stone Age hu­mans had mod­ern­style hu­man hands, de­spite the fact that they be­longed to a hu­man species an­ces­tral to our own but which be­came ex­tinct more than 300,000 years ago.

Re­search in the UK and the US sup­ports the con­cept that early hu­man in­tel­lec­tual abil­ity was largely de­vel­oped in tan­dem with, and to a con­sid­er­able ex­tent cour­tesy of, hand evo­lu­tion — and that even­tu­ally we (Homo sapi­ens) in­her­ited our su­per-dex­trous hands from pre­his­toric hu­mans, which ex­isted be­fore the Ne­an­derthals.

The spe­cific stone tools which were an­a­lysed as part of the study were so­phis­ti­cated flint hand axes, which had re­quired a spe­cial tech­nique to shape them.

The tech­nique is known to pre­his­to­ri­ans as ‘plat­form prepa­ra­tion.’ In most very early stone tools, the man­u­fac­tur­ing process is a sim­ple sin­gle-stage af­fair in which the tool­maker merely hits a lump of flint with a stone re­peat­edly to sys­tem­at­i­cally knock bits off it un­til the lump has been re­duced to a de­sired shape.

How­ever, more so­phis­ti­cated tool­mak­ers em­ployed a two-stage ap­proach. First they would suc­ces­sively “soften up” small por­tions of the flint’s sur­face, so as to then be able to more ac­cu­rately re­move flakes from it, thus cre­at­ing a much more so­phis­ti­cated and ef­fec­tive tool with a bet­ter and more re­fined cut­ting edge.

By at­tach­ing elec­tronic sen­sors to the hands of skilled mod­ern flint knap­pers, ar­chae­ol­o­gists from the Univer­sity of Kent were able to demon­strate that “plat­form prepa­ra­tion” — and thus more so­phis­ti­cated stone tools — was only achiev­able by pre­his­toric peo­ple equipped with anatom­i­cally mod­ern hu­man-like hands.

The study, led by Dr Alas­tair Key of the univer­sity’s School of An­thro­pol­ogy and Con­ser­va­tion, and funded by the Bri­tish Academy, in­ves­ti­gated how hands were used dur­ing the pro­duc­tion of dif­fer­ent types of early stone tools.

It re­veals that by 500,000 BC, hu­mans had the phys­i­cal ca­pa­bil­ity needed to make so­phis­ti­cated hand axes.

This in turn im­plies that they were also the­o­ret­i­cally able to make a large range of other arte­facts that re­quired strong, dex­trous hands — things made out of wood, antler and bone, as well as stone.

“Our ex­per­i­men­tal re­search not only sug­gests that early hu­mans at least

500,000 years ago had anatom­i­cally mod­ern hu­man-like hands, but, when com­bined with other re­cent re­search, can also help us un­der­stand the way in which the hu­man hand, brain and other anatom­i­cal el­e­ments co-evolved,” said Dr Key.

Al­though the fact that so­phis­ti­cated tool man­u­fac­ture could only be done with mod­ern­hu­man-like hands was demon­strated by the Box­grove re­search, an­other set of sim­i­larly so­phis­ti­cated tools have re­cently been found in South Africa — and there are in­di­ca­tions that “plat­form prepa­ra­tion” was be­ing used for stone tool man­u­fac­ture in Ethiopia as early as 850,000 years ago.

So the Box­grove, the South African and the Ethiopian ev­i­dence now helps demon­strate quite clearly that hu­man­ity de­vel­oped its man­ual dex­ter­ity, its in­tel­li­gence and its man­u­fac­tur­ing abil­ity as part of a long in­ter­ac­tive process across at least two and probably three con­ti­nents.

Early (and in­deed mod­ern) hu­mans were (and still are) not phys­i­cally the strongest or even the fastest an­i­mals around. So, in or­der to sur­vive, they had to evolve ways of ad­min­is­ter­ing phys­i­cal force through their hands in ever more ef­fi­cient ways. They needed to do that in or­der to hunt and gather more ef­fi­ciently, in or­der to butcher prey more ef­fi­ciently and in or­der to de­fend them­selves against other an­i­mals (in­clud­ing other hu­mans).

Ul­ti­mately the process re­sulted in hands that could make so­phis­ti­cated tools, weapons and other arte­facts — and, in time, that phys­i­cal abil­ity to make things in turn al­lowed and drove ad­di­tional evo­lu­tion­ary changes in their brains to en­able them to even more ef­fec­tively en­vis­age and in­vent the ever more so­phis­ti­cated items they needed to help them sur­vive and flour­ish. The rest was history, as they say.

The ex­ca­va­tion site at Box­grove in West Sus­sex, UK.

The early hu­mans probably had sig­nif­i­cantly stronger grips com­pared to ear­lier pop­u­la­tions.

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