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The Sciences

Stone Tools Question the Evolution of Ancient Human Culture and Technology

A familiar theory of cultural evolution says early humans experienced a 'revolution' in development, but new research shows that the process may have been more gradual.

By Jack KnudsonFeb 7, 2024 1:50 PM
ancient human making stone tools
(Credit: Gorodenkoff/Shutterstock)


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Using tools seems like second nature for humans today, but our prehistoric ancestors didn’t acquire this practical skill set overnight. The timeline of stone tool development by humans has been rearranged by new research, shaking up traditional views about the evolution of ancient human ingenuity. 

The study, published in Nature Communications, suggests that humans went through a period of gradual cultural change after they started moving throughout Eurasia 50,000 years to 40,000 years ago.

This new perspective challenges the prior belief that early humans experienced a rapid cultural and technological revolution before expanding across Eurasia. The previous ‘revolution’ theory supported the idea that sudden development of anatomically modern humans led them to prevail over Neanderthals and other archaic humans. 

The study reached this updated conclusion after analyzing trends related to human productivity with stone tools during the Middle-Upper Paleolithic (MP-UP), a transition between two crucial phases of human evolution.

Humans During the Middle Paleolithic Era

During the Middle Paleolithic period (250,000 years to 40,000 years ago), Homo sapiens, Neanderthals, and other archaic humans existed simultaneously in different parts of the world. 

Homo sapiens in Africa and Neanderthals in Europe practiced similar ways of creating stone tools at this point, often using the Levallois technique; through this method, particular areas of stones were struck with a hammer-like tool to extract a prepared ‘core’ flake, which would then be modified into cutting objects. This process required a considerable level of intricacy, especially compared to previous tool making methods. 

Read More: Paleomythic: How People Really Lived During the Stone Age

Humans During the Upper Paleolithic Era

During the Upper Paleolithic period (50,000 years to 12,000 years ago), Homo sapiens began to expand into new areas in Europe and Asia as archaic humans like Neanderthals went extinct.

This period saw the arrival of several cultural features in anatomically modern humans, ushering in new technologies for tool making, seafaring capabilities, and artistic expression in ornaments and cave art.

Read More: What Exactly Happened to The Neanderthals and Why Did They Go Extinct?

New Insights into Human Evolution and Toolmaking Progress

The MP-UP transition has largely been considered an abrupt change paired alongside the onset of swift cultural innovations. A common notion related to this assumption is that Homo sapiens experienced a sudden mutation in their brains, giving them increased cognitive abilities; this was thought to have been a central reason why they eventually outclassed other archaic humans and drove Neanderthals to extinction. 

The new study amends this story and appears to have overturned previous conclusions about human productivity. Researchers examined the productivity of stone tools with a cutting-edge over a 50,000-year span, including six cultural phases from the Late Middle Paleolithic, through the Upper Paleolithic and to the Epipaleolithic (a period that recognizes events in the Near East during the last stages of the UP). 

They discovered that significant increases in productivity occurred after Homo sapiens initially advanced into Eurasia, not before or at the beginning of their dispersal. 

“In terms of cutting-edge productivity, Homo sapiens did not start to spread to Eurasia after a quick revolution in stone tool technology, but rather the innovation in the ‘cutting-edge’ productivity occurred later, in tandem with the miniaturization of stone tools like bladelets,” says lead researcher and Nagoya University professor Seiji Kadowaki. 

With these findings, the trajectory of ancient human tool making has effectively been rerouted; multiple stages of change, not a single ‘revolution,’ may have defined the innovations that humans set in motion thousands of years ago.

Read More: What Was This Massive, Record-Setting Stone Tool Used For?

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