The Elements of Evolution – Stone Age

Stone Age

The Stone Age began when some scrawny apelike creatures that walked upright started shaping rocks. These Paleolithic flintknappers first went to work on stone flake tools 3.39 million years ago. Knapping is the shaping of stone, such as flint, by chipping away bits.

The preservation of early stone works belies the fact that hominids manipulated various materials from their earliest days. Gorillas make nests to sleep in each night, and their hands are not nearly as dexterous as even the earliest hominid.

Organic materials simply would not have persevered to be part of the fossil record. Hence, although most implements made were of wood, the Stone Age was designated.

Oldowan Industry

Olduvai Gorge is a steep ravine in the Great Rift Valley that stretches through central east Africa. The ravine was formed millions of years ago by an upwelling mantle plume separating tectonic plates; a process that continues.

That plume caused geographic changes on the surface that altered the biome over the course of millions of years. Those changes drove evolution at a time when hominids were emerging.

Olduvai is a misspelling of Oldupai. Since 2005, Oldupai has been the official name that nobody uses except the locals, who named it in the first place. Anthropology is an inexact science.

Olduvai Gorge is the most famous paleoanthropological site on Earth, and one of the most important, owing to its continued popularity as a prehistoric place to live. Homo habilis resided there 1.9 MYA. Paranthropus boisei called it home 1.8 MYA, followed by Homo erectus (1.2 MYA), and, most recently, Homo sapiens (17 TYA).

Not surprisingly, Olduvai Gorge has been a treasure trove of primitive tools, starting with sharp-edged lithic flakes. Although not the first place such tools were found, it gave its name to the earliest known lithic industry: Oldowan culture (2.6–1.7 MYA).

Famous archeologists Louis and Mary Leakey struck pay dirt at Olduvai in the 1930s, at a time of widespread skepticism that Africa was where hominins evolved.


By a record based on artifacts, the Stone Age pro-gressed via qualitative improvements of implements and ornamentation. Coarse pebble-tools gave way to bifacial hand axes. These cleavers were at first thick and rough. Later ones were finer. Knapping gave way to more refined methods of lithic reduction.

Acheulean Industry

The term Acheulean refers to Saint-Acheul: a suburb of the town Amiens in northern France, 120 kilometers north of Paris. Hewn stone hand axes – oval and pear-shaped – were found there.

The archeological industry of tool manufacture across Africa, Europe, and much of southern Asia during the latter part of the Old Stone Age (Lower Paleolithic) (1.7–0.2 MYA) is termed Acheulean.

Acheulean tools, typically found with Homo erectus remains, represent refinements from cruder Oldowan works. Stone of various quality was worked symmetrically, on both sides, using multiple-stage production techniques.

A site in Arabia found H. erectus stone tools. Rather than haul quality stone from a nearby hill, the locals contented themselves with lesser-quality rocks.

To make their stone tools they would use whatever rocks they could find lying around their camp, which were mostly of comparatively low quality to what later stone tool makers used. They really don’t seem to have been pushing themselves. Not only were they lazy, but they were also very conservative. The environment around them was changing, but they were doing the exact same things with their tools. There was no progression at all. ~ Australian archeologist Ceri Shipton

Acheulean tools were commonly implements for manifold tasks: hacking wood off a tree, cutting animal carcasses, shearing hides. Some appear to have specific uses, such as unearthing tubers and roots.

Carved bone, antler, and ivory tools have been found. Aesthetic sensibility as well as craftsmanship appears in some Acheulean work: among the earliest examples of artistic expression found.

Mousterian Industry

Refinements continued in stone tool manufacture into the Middle Paleolithic (300–30 TYA): more specialized, with specific shapes and sharper edges for hand axes and knives, as well as finer flakes for use in wood spears. Neanderthals and Cro-Magnon were both practitioners of Mousterian culture, though Mousterian artifacts abruptly disappeared from Europe with the passing of Neanderthals.

Mousterian industry was named after Le Moustier, a rock shelter in the Dordogne region of France. This site was typical of finds characterizing this level of stone tool technology.


Reflecting a substantial population increase, archeological sites become more abundant in the Upper Paleolithic. This was a consequence of more efficient exploitation of natural resources by later Pleistocene people.

The expansion of human populations followed widespread reproductive success in the wake of technological improvements in tools, food preparation and storage, footwear and clothes, and home-building that accompanied exploitative accomplishment. These feats provided impetuses for migrations to new lands. Human sprawl proceeded apace.

A significant advance in human technology was the firing of clay in pits, which first occurred ~29,000 BCE. Firing fundamentally changes clay’s properties, as well as offering endless potential for shapes. Pottery provided a means for portable food storage and easier cooking that afforded more mobility over greater distances.

By the New Stone Age (12 TYA), the making of tools had transformed into well-honed weaponry: used against prey that would be eaten, or opposition got out of the way as a matter of conquest. Simple bone points give way to elaborate barbed harpoons which required considerable manufacture. The traditional club evolved into the mace, with sharp edges at the end to aid in close combat.

Spears and knives were plentiful. Many were engraved. Killing with style got an early start.