A rock chipped to have a pointed edge with three images of it from the front, side, and back

Anthropology: The Evolution of Tools and Toolmaking

Human hand holding a downward-facing pointed rock
Image Source: Jean-Pierre Bouchard

What is a Tool?

Tools are objects used to serve a certain function or make a task easier to complete. Despite what some may think, the use of tools isn’t a characteristic exclusive to humans. Many animals, such as chimpanzees, otters, and crows use common, natural objects like twigs and stones to make gaining access to food or to perform other functions easier. What makes humans’ use of tools different from that of all other animals is that humans also alter the makeup of natural objects to make tools more effective and serve more complicated functions. Tools emerged with early hominins. Over time, they have become far more sophisticated, but still the simple stone tools of the first hominins and today’s computers and smart phones share the same characteristic — of natural objects being reshaped to meet specific needs. The far-reaching development of tools did not happen overnight, but instead progressed alongside the development and evolution of our own species.

Chimpanzee in jungle holding rock overhead about to hit the ground
Image source: Lydia Luncz

Oldowan Tools

The first hominins appeared in Africa around 5 to 7 million years ago and, like modern chimpanzees, used rocks and twigs as they exist in nature to dig up roots and insects. However, as hominins slowly evolved, so too did the production of more complex tools. The earliest known examples of hominins taking natural objects and reshaping them for better efficiency are Oldowan tools which emerged around 2.6 million years ago. They are characterized by three major components: the core, the hammerstone, and flakes.

–       The core was a large stone that acted as a source for flakes.

–       The hammerstone was a stone that was used to strike specific areas of the core stone to chip off stone fragments, i.e., flakes, of different sizes and shapes.

–       The flakes were the most valuable Oldowan tools because their sharp edges and small size made them perfect for cutting up carrion and digging up both roots and insects.

The Oldowan tools marked the beginning of the Early Stone Age and the Lower Paleolithic Period. Anthropologists have determined that these Early Stone Age tools were used until around 200,000 years ago by various hominin species. Our earliest known ancestor to make Oldowan tools was Homo Habilis, a short hominin species that lived in East and South Africa from 2.4 to 1.4 million years ago. At this time, hominin species such as Homo Habilis weren’t predators, but rather scavengers who used the flakes to cut open carrion to access the meat, cut bones open for their bone marrow, and dig up roots to eat. With these new tools, Homo Habilis found it easier to get more meat from dead animals, leading to an increase of protein in the hominin diet. This extra protein helped the development of larger and more complex hominin brains, which in turn resulted in greater technological advancements. While not as sophisticated as later technology, Oldowan tools were a crucial step in the development of more advanced tools as they required the alteration of natural elements for their effectiveness.

A rock with smooth some smooth surfaces and sharp edges as if it was struck by another rock
Image source: José-Manuel Benito Álvarez

Acheulean Tools

The next major progression in toolmaking occurred with Acheulean tools. These tools were characterized by precise flaking that resulted in more symmetrical and consistently shaped tools. Instead of striking two stones together and using the flakes in whatever shape they were dispersed, Acheulean tools were made with smaller and more precise strikes to carve the flakes into a specific shape. Acheulean tools first appeared in fossil records about 1.7 million years ago and, like Oldowan tools, were used until around 200,000 years ago. The first hominin species to create these tools was Homo Erectus, who appeared from 1.8 million years ago to 30,000 years ago. Homo Erectus is best known as the first hominin species to leave Africa and migrate into Europe, Asia, and some small islands in the Pacific Ocean.

The object that most defined the Acheulean tools were “hand-axes.” These were large, symmetrical, bifacial tools with a pointed edge. The development of the hand-axe was not only a significant advancement in tools, but it coincided with a major advancement in the development of the hominin brain, which made more advanced tools possible. A comparison of the size of the brain case of the skulls of Homo Habilis and Homo Erectus shows a clear increase in cranial capacity. Hand-axes required Homo Erectus to make more precise and gentler strikes with hammerstones to achieve specific shapes. Moreover, forming the exact shape desired of a hand axe required the ability to think ahead and have mental images of the tool. Hand-axes were relatively large and most likely Homo Erectus would have needed two hands to use them effectively. Wielding hand-axes correctly allowed for more advanced ways to obtain food such as processing carcasses for meat and digging up insects and roots. While hand-axes were one sign of major breakthroughs in hominin cognitive function, Homo Erectus is also famous for another groundbreaking invention.

A stone chipped to have a fine and sharp pointed edge
Image source: C.M. Dixon

Controlled Fire

One of the most transformative technological advancements in history was the ability to control fire. Evidence of concentrated and localized burn marks on stones first appeared in fossil records from around 2 to 1.7 million years ago. How Homo Erectus first lit these fires, whether by striking rocks together or by random lightning, is the subject of debate. Yet, the significance of this achievement is without question. Concentrated and controllable fire allowed Homo Erectus to see in the dark, keep warm in freezing climates, lure out larger prey, ward off predators, strengthen communal bonds by sitting around the campfire, and, of course, cook food. Fire also became transportable with the use of sticks and dry grass, allowing for portable warmth and increased mobility.

A painting depicting three naked Homo Erectus, with one striking rocks together to start a fire, another dragging a dead dear to an already lit fire, and a third walking to the fire while holding a stick
Image Source: Marice Wilson


Cooking food was one of the most critical developments of hominin evolution. As hominins are the only family that reshapes natural objects to create tools, they are also the only species, because of the development of tools, that cooks. Cooking is a pre-digestive function because it breaks down muscle and plant cells, making nutrients more easily accessible – which lessens the amount of energy required for digestion. Cooking also neutralizes dangerous toxins and bacteria. As a result, cooked food minimizes the need for a large and complex digestive track because stomachs don’t need to work as hard. Homo Erectus not only had a larger brain capacity, but also a much smaller digestive system. Before early hominins learned to cook their food, they had to expend much more energy breaking down and digesting raw food. Once cooking was introduced, the decrease in the amount of energy needed to digest food resulted in an increased amount of energy available for the development of the brain. Indeed, there is a direct correlation between the reduction in the size of hominin digestive systems and the increase in brain size: the less energy required to digest food, the more energy available to advance the brain’s size and complexity. In addition to increased brain size, there were also other anatomical benefits to having a smaller and less cumbersome digestive system, which greatly aided human development.  For example, the smaller digestive system of Homo Erectus allowed them to move more easily so hominins became both smarter and quicker. Cooking offers a clear demonstration of the interrelation between the evolution of hominins and the evolution of their tools.

The first Homo Sapiens, a.k.a. humans, appeared in Africa around 200,000 years ago. They significantly expanded the use of fire as a tool beyond what their hominin ancestry had done, burning land to make room for agriculture, forging objects into metal and glass as well as many other more complex uses that helped define us as the species we are today.

Three fish in a pan being cooked over a campfire
Image source: Getty Images

Mousterian Tools

Some further major innovations in toolmaking came from our hominin cousins, Homo Neanderthalensis, or Neanderthals. Neanderthals’ advanced toolmaking corresponds with their large cranial cavity. One of the earliest recorded milestones of Neanderthal toolmaking began around 300,000 years ago with Mousterian tools. They were used up until about 50,000 years ago during the Middle Stone Age or the Middle Paleolithic Period. Mousterian tools are like Acheulean tools, with their similar symmetry, basic shape, and the use of more precise flaking of stone. But, unlike Acheulean toolsMousterian tools used smaller stones, could be held with one hand, and were more portable. They also had much sharper points than earlier tools, making them even better for slicing and cutting meat.  These tools were more effective for killing prey and going on longer chases.  With more efficient tools for hunting and processing meat, protein continued to become an even bigger part of the hominin diet and added to the increase in brain size and function — which in turn would lead to further evolution of tools.

A rock chipped to have a pointed edge with three images of it from the front, side, and back
Image source: José-Manuel Benito Álvarez

Hafted Weapons

With the passing of generations of hominins, the hunted became the hunter. Early hominins around the Middle Stone Age or the Middle Paleolithic Period began using their tools to kill animals for their meat instead of just relying on carrion and insects for protein. Eventually the remains of the hunted animals led to the further development of tools, such as fashioning tools from bones and clothing from their hides to help protect against the elements. By the time of the Neanderthals around 200,000 years ago, a major advance in the evolution of toolmaking took place with the introduction of hafted weapons These weapons combined different elements and tools to form an all-new tool. The spear is an archetypal hafted weapon. The spear was produced by taking a Mousterian-molded sharpened stone and tying it to a long stick with either a strand of leather from an animal carcass or some plant fiber. Spears extended the reach of hunters when stabbing their prey and were able to be thrown farther distances, thus minimizing bodily harm and aiding effectiveness. Now hominins could hunt far larger animals such as the woolly mammoth. This Neanderthal invention dramatically changed the nature of hunting and further expanded the diet of hominins. Spears also helped as defensive weapons against the large predators of the Ice Age including the saber-toothed cat and the short-faced bear as it kept the hominins out of reach of the carnivores’ claws and teeth.

The spear was only the beginning of hafted weapons. Humans progressed to the invention of the bow and arrow, thereby further increasing the speed, precision, length, and effectiveness of hunting weapons. Consequently, the development of hafted weapons was a significant step in humans becoming the apex predators of the world.

Woolly mammoth being attacked by cavemen with spears
Image source: Lorraine Boissoneault

Aurignacian Tools

            Around the Late Stone Age, also known as the Upper Paleolithic Period, some 43,000 years ago, Neanderthals further developed sharp tools made from stone.  This tool technology, called Aurignacian tools or “blade-based technology,” was characterized by flakes that were longer than they were wide.  A longer length than width had the advantage of being easier to grab and use more efficiently with one hand. It also made the stones sharper, more precise, and more aero-dynamic. This made throwing hafted weapons more accurate and faster. This new blade technology made many activities easier such as impaling animals that had thick winter hides and processing meat and plants. The blade would go on to be the staple of all future sharp melee weapons, even in the present day.

While the development of Aurignacian tool technology led to advances in hunting and self-defense, another, perhaps less foreseeable, result of these kinds of tools was the development of art.  The precision and sharpness of these tools gave humans the ability to express themselves, their ideas, and their creativity through engraving. Early examples of engraving include carving figurines of gods and animals from stones. Also, the ivory from mammoth tusks became a valuable tool for carving figurines, making jewelry, and making musical instruments such as flutes.

Spear head
Image source: Don Hitchcock


It’s quite easy to see that no other species has ever reached the level of ingenuity and ability to shape the world around them as humans. These technological advancements are the direct result of the distinct ability of our hominin ancestors to shape the natural elements around them into more complex tools, which then further aided the development of the brain and of our species. Such steady technological and biological advances over millenniums allowed our ancestors to advance from being small, meek apes, scavenging dead animals in the savanahs of Africa, to becoming the global apex-predators we are today. Without a doubt, tools are essential to human evolution and life.

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